New UO student corps aids virus tracing and community support

As Lane County’s COVID-19 case count continues to grow, a new program at the University of Oregon is bolstering countywide contact tracing and supporting people who are self-quarantining.

The UO Student Corps to Combat Coronavirus, or Corona Corps for short, started supporting Lane County Public Health’s contact tracing efforts July 1 after being rapidly developed through a partnership with the UO’s Center for Global Health and University Health Services.

The Corona Corps currently comprises a core group of 16 students serving as contact tracers, with about 25 more in reserve to expand as necessary when cases and contacts surge in Lane County.  The core group can manage over 125 contacts a day via phone for daily check-ins.

Contacts are the web of people exposed to a person who is positive with COVID-19.  Contacts are advised to quarantine for 14 days, which is the exposure period of the virus. 

The check-ins, which continue for the full 14 days, are a primary tool to contain the spread of the virus. Corona Corps members and other contact tracers at Lane County Public Health check in daily to see if contacts have developed symptoms, how they’re doing and if they need resources.

And the need is only increasing. As of July 16, 324 cases had been recorded in Lane County, more than triple the number one month ago.

The idea for the corps came from UO’s Dennis Galvan, dean and vice provost for global engagement. He wanted to create a service learning opportunity for students from the UO and other campuses centered on the pandemic and global health.

“This is a global crisis, and we think that students can really help. They can be trained, they have the energy, they’re inspired to help solve the problem,” Galvan said. “We want to make sure that as our students learn to do that, they’re in contact with students doing similar work across Oregon, in states up and down the West Coast and in countries around the Pacific Rim.”

Galvan approached professors Jeff Measelle of psychology, Josh Snodgrass of anthropology and other faculty members in the Center for Global Health. Measelle, who is affiliated with the center, co-directs the contact tracing program with Angela Long, director of public health practices and health outcomes improvement at University Health Services. Snodgrass leads assessment and evaluation of the program.

Students receive an hourly wage and tuition-free credits for their training. Many are able to fulfill an academic requirement. And all are providing a valuable service to Lane County Public Health.

“The opportunity to work with the University of Oregon and its pool of talented students has helped Lane County Public Health in its effort to keep the community healthy and safe during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” said Jason Davis, public information officer for the county health department.

Corona Corps staff monitor symptoms, and, when necessary, can help contacts get tested for COVID-19. They also provide information and answer questions, and they are people to talk to at a time when contacts may feel isolated, worried or afraid.

Some of the contacts’ concerns include missing work, mounting bills and buying groceries. Students can set up contacts with case managers who assist with those issues so quarantine can continue.

Quarantine isn’t always an easy pill to swallow, but the Corona Corps staff talks each person through its value.

“What I try to stress to people is that they’re really helping out their community by staying home,” said Joan Hicks, a corps staff member.

The Corona Corps recruits students like Hicks, a recently graduated psychology major with a minor in global health, and Wyatt Keuter, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology with undergraduate degrees in psychology and sociology, on the strength of their familiarity with health sciences.

But perhaps even more important are strong interpersonal skills and ability to work with culturally diverse individuals.

Keuter said his counseling program emphasizes holistic health and considers a patient’s cultural background and life experiences. And his own experience as a medical assistant and as an emergency medic in the military has taught him to connect with people from a variety of backgrounds.

Hicks said she likes to thoroughly review the contact’s file to make sure she has as complete a picture of the person and their circumstances as possible.

“With the case numbers on the rise, it’s kind of difficult to make sure everyone feels prioritized, rather than that I’m just someone going through names on a computer,” she said.

The students need to be empathetic and build trust with contacts who may be distrustful of governmental agencies, Measelle said. That’s why hiring a culturally diverse group of students was so important.

“We’re dropping a bomb on people in our community,” he said. “We have to work with every person and encourage them to buy into the objective of quarantining. It takes genuine people skills, namely the ability to connect empathically with someone being asked to do something really challenging.”

If the number of COVID-19 cases in Lane County surges, so will the Corona Corps. Measelle said as that happens, he hopes any student who wants to be a part of the effort considers applying.

Both Keuter and Hicks said the possibility of a surge is what worries them most, especially if the demand for contact tracing were to outpace the county’s ability to deliver services. But keeping that from happening is a primary motivation for what they’re doing.

“We’re at a point where we can still be tracing everyone and reducing the spread, so this is the time to take it as seriously as possible and be as proactive as possible,” Keuter said.

The University Health Services provides the space for the call center, which can accommodate up to 12 Corona Corps members at a time. 

“The Health Center is a logical place for the Corona Corps to operate,” Long said. “It is community and public-health oriented, centrally located on campus and open to serve students.”

The call center operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. 

“Ultimately, we will need about 70 students to work several three-hour shifts per week to fill the 12 seats, should Lane County Public Health need us to do so,” Long said. “At that capacity, we think we could contact 400 to 500 contacts per day, which would be a tremendous contribution to public health in the greater UO community and Lane County.”

—By Anna Glavash, University Communications

Editor's note: An earlier photo of three students that accompanied this story has been removed to avoid any confusion about physical distancing expectations. While the students were sitting the required six feet apart, the angle of the photo made it appear they were closer.