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Student Health Center: COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Student Learning

Prior to COVID-19, with the exception of those choosing a career in public healthcare, the term “contact tracing” was not likely a significant part of the average college-aged student’s lexicon. COVID-19 has changed that considerably. Most all students are now familiar with that term, even if they do not know everything that it entails. Contact tracing plays a significant role in managing a community’s response to a pandemic and COVID-19 has made the importance of contact tracing demonstrably clear.

“Case investigation and contact tracing are fundamental activities that involve working with a patient (symptomatic and asymptomatic) who has been diagnosed with an infectious disease to identify and provide support to people (contacts) who may have been infected through exposure to the patient. This process prevents further transmission of disease by separating people who have (or may have) an infectious disease from people who do not. It is a core disease control measure that has been employed by public health agency personnel for decades. Case investigation and contact tracing are most effective when part of a multifaceted response to an outbreak.” – CDC, 2020

The Program: 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, through cooperation with the Knox County Health Department and the Tennessee Department of Health, the SHC has created an on-campus resource for contact tracing through the SHC Contact Tracing Program. This program is primarily staffed by UT students who have received training in the processes of contact tracing and patient support.

Students involved in the training and day to day work of the program have noted:

“From past experience working with contact tracers I understood their importance, but I was unsure how my background with social work would apply. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well they relate. So much of contact tracing is about relationship building and trust. The campus community has been so receptive of our program and have been great partners in keeping our Rocky Top community safe.” – J.S.

“Being a contact tracer has taught me many lessons. Principle among them are the importance of teamwork and clarity of communication. Contact tracing has also helped me to gain a deeper understanding of how each of our lives are intricately interconnected in unexpected ways. Going forward, I feel that this experience will help me to be a better, more empathetic communicator who has a unique skill set that is transferable to many occupations.” – S.S.

“Like most everyone, COVID-19 really turned my school plans upside down: I am in the Social Work masters program and went from trying to find an internship near me, to hoping to find an internship at all. From the beginning, Contact Tracing has given me the opportunity to understand the public health implications of the virus as well as the very human aspects of the pandemic. Not only have I become my family’s resident expert on the virus, I have developed the compassionate interview and case management skills that I know will serve me when I graduate as a social worker. In such a strange year where so many people have felt helpless and alone, I am grateful and lucky that I was able to be a part of the University’s support and response to the virus for our Volunteer family.” -K.L.

“For me, serving as a contact tracer has been an opportunity rather than an obligation. In order to keep the community safe, one must be intentional with each individual and always approach each case with an empathetic heart.” – H.C.

“My experience as a contact tracer over the past several months has been so fulfilling. I feel that I’ve learned so much from my work with students and staff members facing this terrible virus and will take these life lessons with me into my future social work career. It has been inspiring to see our campus community work together to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible. I’m constantly encouraged by the work of our team and the dedication of the entire university.” – R.B.

We could not function without the support of these students in our campus response to COVID-19. We are grateful to each of them and the work they perform in serving their fellow students and our campus community.