When the call for volunteer tracers went out to UCF students over the summer, Anthony DePaz knew he wanted to be involved. In the past year, someone very close to him had become ill from the virus, and he wanted to help others who had been affected by the pandemic.
Since the spring, UCF Student Health Services has worked with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County to conduct contact tracing in COVID-19 cases with links to the campus community.
It soon became clear there was a need for more contact tracing. Over the summer, a call went out to UCF undergrad students in health-related programs inviting them to become registered volunteer contact tracers.
More than 700 students applied for the unpaid positions, says Jascinth Lindo, associate professor of nursing who helped coordinate the effort to recruit UCF student volunteers. “We were not surprised that so many Knights were interested in helping their fellow Knights during this challenging time.”
The six students — DePaz, Hannah Arias, Sarahi Monsalve, Xuxa Major, Desiree Rivera and Alex Zamora — applied and became registered volunteer contact tracers to amplify UCF efforts to stop the spread of the disease.
The students received training from the DOH regarding contact tracing processes, privacy and confidentiality protocols, and also had to pass a background check before they could begin talking to patients, who are not just UCF employees and students, but a broad range of individuals who live within the UCF area. Each student committed to volunteering 10 hours a week conducting contact tracing.
When the Orange County Health Department receives notification of a positive test in the UCF area, the information is uploaded onto a database from which DePaz and the other student tracers are then assigned patients.
When Xuxa Major calls patients to tell them they have tested positive for COVID-19, she anticipates their reaction.
“They almost always tell me they ‘don’t have time for this,’” says Major, a senior biomedical sciences student.
‘This’ being the 14-day isolation period that accompanies a positive test and the process of establishing where each patient has been and identifying others they’ve had close contact with so that contact tracers can help encourage those at risk to also get tested.
Receiving a phone call from one of the contact tracers is not the only way someone is notified, but it could be the most important way, Major says. “They are also emailed, but students never check their email,” she says with a laugh.
Major was inspired to become a contact tracer because she knows the impact of large-scale devastation. She experienced the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, her childhood home, which resulted in an estimated 250,000 deaths.
“I don’t want anyone to go through anything like that,” Major says.
As a result of her experiences with devastation and loss, Major says she tries to approach each patient on her list with compassion and understanding.
Often, after the initial shock of learning they have tested positive for the virus, her patients express regret and guilt when remembering places where they may have encountered someone who had the disease, or for spreading it to others before finding out they were positive.
“I get it,” Major says. “I tell them that I’m a student, too. I want to go out, I want to see my friends. I’m tired of staying inside every day.”
The student tracers then reach out to the people with whom the patient may have had contact with, and they inform them of what to expect and what precautions to take.
When Major talks to patients, sometimes they are asymptomatic. Other times, they are already feeling sick. Her role is not to provide medical advice, but to direct them to various services available to students on campus, which include things like Wellness Meal Plans, a three-meal a day plan for students who have already purchased a meal plan, and counseling services from CAPS.
Rivera, who is also a student volunteer contact tracer, echoed some of Major’s sentiments.
“It’s very personal for me and for the students,” she says. “Sometimes, they are reluctant to share what they think might be embarrassing details, but we assure them that everything is held in confidence — our goal is simply to protect the community.”
Rivera, a communication sciences and disorders student, has spoken with patients of all ages and all walks of life. She sees the experience as beneficial to her future career as a speech-language pathologist. Some of her clients may include survivors of COVID-19, who can face challenges with breathing, speaking and swallowing after ventilator use, and her clinical training will help play a role in their physical recovery.
“It’s been surprising to see how far-reaching this has been,” says Rivera. “I think that UCF students have banded together as best we can, and we will continue to Charge On.”