Western Oregon University Community Health students will have the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to serve as contact tracers in Polk County.
WOU’s Health and Exercise Science Division and Polk County Health Services professionals are collaborating to develop and implement a COVID-19 Prevention and Contact Tracing program that meets the unique needs and resources of Polk County.
WOU Assistant Community Health Professor Megan Patton-Lopez, WOU Associate Community Health Professor Emily Vala-Haynes and Polk County Public Health Administrator Kristty Polanco ’10 are in the early stages of training WOU students to be contact tracers. They also are leading the efforts to meet the reopening requirements outlined by the Oregon Health Authority.
Vala-Haynes and Patton-Lopez have backgrounds in epidemiology, assessment and public health. WOU Community Health students are trained to use their skills and knowledge in public health and disease prevention to develop and implement strategies to improve the health of individuals and communities.
For more than 100 years, Patton-Lopez said contact tracing has been the fundamental element of any public health response to an infectious disease outbreak. Individuals identified as having COVID-19 will provide a list of people they have been in close contact with in the past two days before they started showing symptoms. A contact tracer checks with each person for 14 days.
“This timing and the definition of a contact is all specific to COVID-19 and what we know about how it’s spread and how long it takes to develop the disease after being exposed,” Vala-Haynes said. “This is extremely important in our ability to combat COVID-19 because it allows us to identify new cases early, and if those people have been properly self-quarantining, then we prevent the additional spread.”
Solid partnership foundation
Working together on past projects led to current discussions on how WOU could assist Polk County in preserving the health, well-being and safety of Polk County community members.
“It’s obviously more intense right now, but I truly believe that this should always be our role as a university,” Vala-Haynes said. “I love that WOU is situated in a rural county, and that Megan and I and our students can be useful to Kristty as she directs this response.”
WOU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Rob Winningham said the university is fortunate to have excellent faculty members with backgrounds in epidemiology, assessment and health communication who are more than willing to support the community.
“This partnership is a great example of how WOU provides students with real-world opportunities to prepare themselves for professional careers,” Winningham said.
Caring for the community
Understanding the health of a community goes beyond just the physical health of its members. Public health officials look at the entire picture by also considering factors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic such as job loss, family dynamics, academic changes and more.
“Not every community or household’s experience is exactly the same. These past few months have been traumatic,” Patton-Lopez said. “There are many people and organizations working hard to support households who are suffering due to COVID-19. If your household needs help during this time, please reach out.”
Polanco said public health officials are strengthening their partnerships, specifically with Polk County Family and Community Outreach to provide families with information and resources that they need to be able to follow quarantine and isolation recommendations.
“As we move forward, our goal continues to be preserving the health, well-being and safety of everyone in Polk County, and this is made possible through continued community support,” Polanco said.