Students Assist Local Public Health Departments With COVID-19 Response
As Massachusetts surges past 30,000 coronavirus cases and over 1,000 deaths, almost 600 School of Public Health students are jumping into action to help local public health departments respond to the pandemic.
The students, along with several SPH faculty, staff, and alumni, are part of the newly formed Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC), a COVID-19-focused initiative of the Academic Health Department Consortium that includes more than 1,900 students and alumni from the nine schools and programs of public health across the Commonwealth and two local Community Health Workers programs. The group works in partnership with Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), Massachusetts Health Officers Association, and the Office of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 Command Center.
SPH students and alums comprise the largest percentage of APHVC volunteers and are providing a range of expertise and skills to meet the emergency needs of dozens of local boards of health. Several DrPH students serve as APHVC team leaders for towns and cities, mobilizing volunteers to assist with the most critical areas of support, which include contact tracing, communications, phone banking, language support, policy development, and data analysis.
First-year DrPH student Rebecca West, the team lead for the City of Salem and Town of Ashland, oversees students conducting contact tracing, which federal health officials say is an essential part of controlling the spread of coronavirus and determining when daily activities can resume. West, who leads 9 students in Ashland and is currently onboarding another 10 students in Salem, says her team in Ashland was one of the first to conduct contact tracing using REDCap, a data collection system that interfaces with the system that DPH utilizes.
“We are conducting case investigation calls for COVID-positive individuals, collecting contacts of positive cases, and following up with contacts, as well as helping to provide quarantine and isolation guidance,” says West, adding that her team in Ashland was one of the first to conduct contact tracing using REDCap, a data collection system that interfaces with the system that DPH utilizes. “I have a lot of experience with data collection software and data management so I was able to help start troubleshooting and dig into the data systems last week to support the rest of the team leads.”
So far, SPH students and alums have been matched with more than 60 local health departments. MPH students Amanda Canavatchel and Elizabeth Koonce serve as operations managers, overseeing field operations and internal processes, respectively, to help volunteers get trained, matched with a local board of health, and deployed to where their expertise is most needed.
“My main task right now is getting the new volunteer onboarding process as streamlined and efficient as possible,” says Koonce, adding that the SPH courses Strategies for Public Health Advocacy and Strategic Management of Healthcare Systems have been especially useful for her role. “Placing 1,500 eager volunteers is a labor-intensive process because we want to match them in a way that best suits both their skills and availability.
“The crisis has been devastating, but to be a part of public health in action has been inspiring for me,” she says.
Canavatchel, who consults with local boards of health about volunteers’ talent, resources, and leadership, says that she decided to join the Volunteer Corp because she “cannot imagine doing anything else.”
“In March, when the full gravity of COVID-19 was setting in, my first thought was ‘I need to find the call for volunteers because if that is where I am needed, that is where I am going,’” she says. “It has been a great honor and privilege to be able to answer that call. Seeing the public health community mobilize and respond demonstrates that we are getting through this.”
Harold Cox, associate dean of public health practice, serves as the official SPH representative on the consortium and several SPH faculty and staff are lending leadership, administrative, and operational support on the Academic Health Department Collaborative, a subset of the consortium that works directly with the volunteers. Lisa Toby, assistant dean of careers and practicum, and Ryan Wisniewski, practicum manager, serve as the communications liaisons between the collaborative and the school, ensuring that SPH volunteers with specific skills are identified as quickly as possible in order to be matched.
“It’s been incredible to see the amazing commitment, work ethic, and passion of the volunteers,” says Toby. “I have always admired our students, but this really takes it to a new level.”
From the SPH Activist Lab, Kathleen MacVarish, and associate professor of the practice, Kerry Dunnell, assistant director of practice programs, helped develop the list of training requirements that volunteers must complete before they are matched with a local board of health. Two of the required courses are the self-paced, online courses Orientation to Local Public Health in Massachusetts, and Dealing with Stress in Disasters: Building Psychological Resilience, which were already offered through the Local Public Health Institute (LPHI) that is housed in the Activist Lab.
“It is important that the volunteers have a notion of how local public health works,” says Dunnell, who is also the LPHI manager. “Since there are 351 boards of health in Massachusetts, with no requirements for staffing or training standards, each department will look a little different. This training establishes the common understanding of public health.”
“Further, the Stress Management training is included because it is important that the volunteers understand how responding to an event can impact them,” Dunnell says.
The training list includes new material from MDPH that was recorded as a webinar by Seth Eckhouse, senior program manager in the Activist Lab,
As with any major public health emergency, clear and accurate communication is critical for keeping the public informed and safe. Emily Barbo, communications manager for the Activist Lab, is providing communications support to volunteers who are handling a range of communications work with local departments, including social media and website content.
“Each city and town has a diverse set of needs and resources, so every day is a new puzzle,” says Barbo. “I feel really grateful to be able to contribute my knowledge and experience in this way because I know that the communication of evidence-based public health information will not only give folks a sense of safety and security, but it can also save lives. That’s exactly what these volunteers, and this initiative, is doing.”