Practicing their passion: USF College of Public Health faculty work across the state to trace contacts, track spread of COVID-19

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In mid-March, Dr. Donna Petersen, ScD, MHS, CEH, dean of USF’s College of Public Health (COPH), sent an email to the college’s faculty with the subject line of “an unprecedented opportunity.”

The email was sent just as the university and the country were bracing for the coming onslaught of COVID-19 cases. It asked faculty to work with the Florida Department of Health in various counties and capacities across the state to monitor and fight the spread of COVID-19. This, in addition to teaching their online courses and continuing with their research.

All in all, roughly a dozen faculty members responded to the call, doing everything from contact tracing to compiling medical profiles on those who had died from the virus. What were their experiences like? What will they remember weeks, months and years from now? Five of those COPH faculty members shared their stories.

On difficulties getting people to adhere to guidelines

Marie Bourgeois, PhD, a COPH alum and assistant research professor, was deployed to hard-hit Miami-Dade County where she worked to put together medical history profiles on those who died from COVID-19, many of whom, she said, had COPD, diabetes and/or chronic kidney disease.

“We were sending people into nursing homes ​and assisted living facilities where patients had been identified as having the virus, instructing the staff on vulnerabilities they might have. In one home a nurse told us they hadn’t had visitors since the 13th of March and that the staff was observing all of the safety protocols, but people were still getting sick. She said the [COVID] patients who were smokers would still insist on sneaking outside for cigarettes. They had the masks with them because the facility required them all to follow safety protocols, but they would scrunch them down under their chins to smoke. She was afraid they would catch on fire. But there is such a thing as free will. You’re not necessarily going to convince an 85-year-old who has survived the Great Depression and World War II that you have a significant amount of control over him/her. She couldn’t get them to see the risk of a virus that could kill them when they had already lived through such tumultuous times.”

On preparedness (or lack of it)

Elizabeth Dunn, MPH, an alumna, COPH instructor, current doctoral candidate and recipient of the college’s 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award, is working with the Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management securing PPE for healthcare professionals. She’s also placed 16 students in positions around the county, assisting with COVID-19 support, logistics and coordination efforts.

“The lack of PPE available has been most unexpected—and a surprise to me personally. I believe planning prior to this large-scale event—on a national level—regarding supply chain disruptions should have been anticipated and taken into account. It would have helped us understand what sort of medical equipment, supplies or medications would be in short supply due to an interruption [in manufacturing or distribution]. That being said, however, this whole experience has shown how progressive our county and the City of Tampa are in taking a whole-community approach to tackling these challenges regarding COVID-19 as they arise. Our emergency management officials are responding and coordinating along with health department experts and USF Health. Instead of each of us working in silos, we’re working together. One good example: We’re launching a research project to look at COVID-19 considerations as we prepare evacuation shelters for the upcoming hurricane season.” 

Elizabeth Dunn, MPH, takes inventory of N95 face masks for the Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management Operations. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn)

On community

Stephanie Marhefka, PhD, professor and assistant dean for research, worked remotely for Monroe County tracing contacts and entering/studying data. “When I began calling contacts of confirmed cases for their daily monitoring, I was surprised at the response. I was calling from my cell phone—a 917 area code—when the contacts were likely anticipating a call from a number starting 305. I didn’t expect many contacts to answer—but they did! My next surprise was that they appreciated the phone call. They thanked me for following up. It seemed that in this time of fear and so much ambiguity, the calls brought them comfort. They were grateful to know that someone was looking for out for them. Previously, when I was entering data from forms staff completed during contact monitoring, I was thinking about ways to automate the monitoring process. Wouldn’t it be more efficient if we use a texting system to complete the monitoring? But now, I realize that the monitoring process may be important for supporting people through a very difficult time. What must it feel like to know you were exposed to someone with COVID-19—especially for someone who is elderly and/or has underlying health conditions that put them at high risk for poor outcomes? Maybe that call helps some people to feel a little less alone at a time when they fear death is about to come knocking on their door.”

On fear of the virus

Matawal Makut, MBBS, MPH, MBA, CPH, a COPH alum, faculty instructor and medical doctor trained in Nigeria, was deployed to rural Madison County where he traced contacts of COVID-19 patients.

“Honestly, I am really excited at this opportunity to experience public health in action. We constantly teach our students about epidemiological concepts, but being able to personally apply such concepts in the middle of a pandemic has been a great experience so far. Yes, fear of the virus is real, and I have told myself the only way to stay safe is to observe the basic precautions of social distancing, washing my hands regularly and using hand sanitizer. I also wear an N-95 mask since I am with the health department and they sometimes swab patients. We’ve signed up to do this job and it will be great to contribute my quota and flatten the curve while also staying safe.”

Dr. Matawal Makut (front left) meets with the epidemiological team at the Madison County Health Department. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Makut)

On professional responsibility 

Deidre Orriola, MPH, CPH, CLC, is a COPH alum and adjunct faculty member who also deployed to Madison County and performed contact tracing, including going to individual homes. “Things are up and down. We had our first death today in the county from COVID-19. But we have also cleared many people from self-isolation and monitoring. I cleared five today. I made my last call and sent them a letter that they were being released from monitoring, although they are advised that Florida is still under a stay-at-home order. That’s rewarding and feels good. At the end of the day I fist-pump in the air and, ‘Yay! We got five released today!’ I would do this again in a heartbeat. I feel a responsibility to use the skills I have to educate and prevent [disease] and help people get through this. We’re gradually seeing that curve flatten and I am proud to show my children that this is what I’m doing to help.”

COPH faculty members Deidre Orriola (second from left) and Dr. Matawal Makut (second from right) meeting with the Madison County EOC team to plan daily outreach to assisted living facilities and to monitor their needs. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Makut)

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health