UI students work as contact tracers in Johnson County

Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 10:25 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - One of the most important jobs of slowing the spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing. That is telling people when they’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, so they can quarantine.

In Johnson County, that job is being done by college students.

“Usually it’s just a lot of us trying to give them advice and trying to learn from their personal experiences,” said University of Iowa College of Public Health Carly O’Connor.

She’s one of 44 UI students conducting all of the contact tracing in Johnson County in order to slow the spread within the community.

“When we have a person that tests positive for COVID 19 we contact them,” says O’Connor.

She calls people who have tested positive. Some of them ask a lot of questions about what to expect with the virus and how they can keep loved ones from getting it. She also needs a list of everyone who might have already caught it from the infected person.

“I had no experience with what I was doing except for the classes that I was taking in public health,” she says. “This was the first time I’ve ever been able to apply what I’ve learned into the community.”

Sam Jarvis with the Johnson County Department of Public Health says they could hire three or four full-time trained professionals, but partnering with the College of Public Health means 44 students can be contact tracers working three-hour shifts on varying days.

“These are public health students they have that background initially,” says Jarvis. “They have the desire and we’re happy to provide this amazing opportunity to be in the workforce during a pandemic.”

O’Connor is getting paid and earning college credits as a contact tracer. It’s an opportunity in a field she knew she’d enjoy, but never envisioned she’d be a critical part of responding to a global pandemic.

“I don’t know if I ever would have considered being a contact tracer, I don’t know if that something that would’ve sparked my interest contract tracing for the flu or foodborne illnesses, but for a pandemic, this is something that affects virtually everyone.”

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