Student Contact Tracers Gain Professional Skills While Aiding Polk County

Exterior of Peter Courtney Health and Wellness Center

[This story is a follow-up piece to “WOU Students are Training to Be Contact Tracers”]


In the initial months of the pandemic, WOU faculty collaborated with Polk County Public Health to create a student-led COVID-19 contact tracing initiative. The group was gathered, trained, and instructed by Assistant Professors of Community Health Megan Patton-Lopez and Emily Vala-Haynes. Two students served as project coordinators, Maddie Dirren and Jenny Leon-Perez, who both graduated in 2020 with a major in Community Health Education.


The mission of this program was described by senior and fellow contract tracer Samantha Harris: “The WOU Community Health + Polk County COVID-19 Project is a collaborative effort among community health faculty and students, Polk County Public Health, and other community partners to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Our primary goal is to provide coordinated communication outreach and engagement efforts that ensure vulnerable members of Polk County have access to accurate and timely information to protect their health and safety.”


When asked about the role of coordinators in the program, Dirren replied, “I oversee contact tracing efforts and outreach work in our task forces. With contact tracing I assign new cases to the team who need to complete an interview to verify contact information, learn information about quarantine, and also be connected to community resources. I am also available all day for questions and problem solving.”


Leon-Perez stated, “My job is to manage the student employees, oversee community outreach and engagement projects, and contact tracing efforts. I am also responsible for communicating with community partners and attending meetings. I check-in and delegate tasks to student employees. I am also there if they need assistance with any outreach material being created [and] develop materials for the community. Since I am fluent in English and Spanish, I help with the translation of any documents created by the team. I plan outreach events for our team to attend and provide COVID-19, contact tracing, and Polk County resources information to the community. During those outreach events, I supervise and make sure everything runs smoothly.”


Dirren also described what working in the taskforce entails, for both coordinators and the other student contact tracers; “Work in our task forces involves meetings, research, and product development for our key audiences. Some of our current projects include creating educational handouts for WOU athletes, an educational newsletter for older adults, and a data analysis report for a survey we distributed among Dallas Retirement Village residents. I am also involved in creating a biweekly data brief that is distributed among community partners. The data brief has in-house made data visuals and provides COVID-19 information on Polk county specifics, [as well as] national and international highlights.”


The contact tracers were asked about their most notable findings during this process. Dirren replied, “Since we have begun contact tracing, there have been times with lowered COVID-19 case numbers; however, the general state of COVID-19 has gotten much worse since the spring. In my experience with contact tracing, many individuals are very receptive and willing to participate in the process although there are still many people who do not know what contact tracing is and the full benefit it can have in a community.”


Leon-Perez, on the other hand, stated, “The most notable findings include the lack of information tailored to the Latinx community. Most of the information available for the community is not in Spanish, which affects how much reliable information is accessible to them to clearly understand COVID-19 and contact tracing. I have also noticed the lack of knowledge regarding contact tracing and how important it is in stopping the spread of COVID-19.”


Harris, speaking on a lighter note, observed, “The resilience of the Polk County Community during this unprecedented time. We understand that this time may be difficult, but we greatly appreciate how our community has been receptive to our contact tracing efforts and shown interest in our health communication and education campaigns.”


This group has become an important resource and aid to the Polk county community. Dirren stated, “Through contact tracing, we help prevent the spread of the virus and educate the contacts. Also, through various education and communication campaigns, the project has developed materials that improve the general knowledge of COVID-19 and increase prevention measures in the community. Our project has created two educational newsletters for the Latinx community that connect individuals to local resources.”


Leon-Perez added, “We have provided real-time information about COVID-19 and contact tracing to students, families, and staff. We have done this by providing COVID-19 training to the DEL staff. In addition to that, we helped do health checks on students and visitors moving into the residence halls during the WOU move-in days. During this pandemic WOU has also created many relationships with community partners including the Oregon Health Authority, Polk County Public Health Services, Mano a Mano, Dallas Retirement Village, and many more.”


This team has worked to improve more than just the local community, however. When recruiting students and soon-to-be graduates, WOU maintained their mission to help contact-tracers gain real-world experience that would contribute to the skills they need for their intended careers. 


In regard to this sentiment, Harris stated, “This internship has allowed me to further develop my leadership and communication skills, as well as increase my knowledge pertaining to cultural sensitivity and cultural competency. It has also provided me with a greater understanding of health communication and epidemiology in a practical setting. During my experience, I was a co-lead for a community engagement event, created my own educational document for WOU athletes, and collaborated with other team members to produce a newsletter for the older adults population. All of these skills and experiences will be useful in my future medical career.”


Leon-Perez stated in relation to personal growth, “It has made me realize how capable I am to handle any task. It has helped improve my communication skills both written and verbal. In any job, having great communication skills is essential. I now feel capable and prepared to communicate with any professional.”


Finally, Dirren’s leadership role was particularly beneficial: “This experience has allowed me to work in a management position and develop many skills that I can carry with me throughout my career. Organization, confidence, and initiative are important in this role. Working in public health and in this role, I am also improving skills such as resourcefulness, decision making, delegating, and conceptual skills. Since the work of this project is mostly done virtually, communication is critical, and I am able to practice strong communication skills via email, phone call, and zoom meetings everyday.”


As this pandemic progresses, WOU and Polk County continue to have the safety and health of locals and students in mind. If you or a loved one are seeking resources, you can visit this page for links and further information.

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