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Public Health Students Volunteer as Contact Tracers

As ‘Tip of Spear’ in Information Gathering, UML Students Help State Contain COVID-19

Sam Codyer makes a contact tracing call from home Photo by Amy McGrath
Master of Public Health student Sam Codyer spends several hours a day making contact tracing calls from his Fitchburg home as part of the state's COVID-19 containment efforts.

04/29/2020
By Ed Brennen

Graduate student Sam Codyer ’14 doesn’t have a lot of bandwidth at the moment. On top of working full-time from home in Fitchburg while finishing his final two courses for his master’s degree in public health, he is about to become a father.

But when Codyer heard that the commonwealth of Massachusetts was looking for public health students to volunteer with its COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, he made the time.

“I couldn’t say no. I knew I needed to help in some way,” says Codyer, who is among 30 undergraduate and graduate students from the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences who have volunteered to work with local boards of health as contact tracers.

“As public health students, we’re fluent in everything that’s being discussed, so it’s easier for us to volunteer and work with those already in the field,” says Codyer, who was assigned to work with the Cambridge Public Health Department. “All the things we’ve learned in school about the importance of public health are coming to fruition.” 

Contact tracing is a critical step in containing the coronavirus pandemic. It involves a trained public health worker speaking by phone with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 and creating a list of people with whom they were in close contact while infectious. Contact tracers then call those people to warn them that they may have been exposed to the virus, offering them information and guidance on self isolation, health monitoring and testing.

“We’re the tip of the spear when it comes to gathering information,” Codyer says.

It’s estimated that the country could need as many as 300,000 contact tracers to dramatically slow the spread of coronavirus — and Massachusetts has quickly emerged as a national leader on that front. On April 3, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the creation of the COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative, the first of its kind in the nation.
“As a public health student, I feel it is my responsibility to step up in situations like these.” -Sai Priyanka Mellacheruvu

A week earlier, the governor requested that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) work with local universities’ public health programs to create the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps to assist boards of health with contact tracing.

Fortunately, the MDPH already had established connections with several local colleges and universities. In April 2019, nine schools — including UMass Lowell, Harvard University, Boston University and UMass Amherst — formed the Massachusetts Academic Health Department Collaborative. When the collaborative put out a call for contact tracing volunteers, more than 1,000 students and alumni registered in two days.

“We are grateful for this valuable opportunity for our students to be a part of the state’s important COVID-19 response work,” says Casey Leon, a clinical instructor of public health at UML. “There’s no better way to apply what they’ve learned in the public health program than by practicing it, particularly in this time of great need.”

Not all of the students have been called on yet to begin training as contact tracers.

One who has is Sai Priyanka Mellacheruvu, a first-year master of public health student. She and Codyer are on the same 20-person contact tracing team in Cambridge.

“As a public health student, I feel it is my responsibility to step up in situations like these,” says Mellacheruvu, a native of Hyderabad, India, who earned bachelor’s degrees in medicine and surgery from the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences.

The contact tracers are assigned cases from MAVEN (the Massachusetts Virtual Epidemiologic Network), the state’s infectious disease data collection system. The contact information they collect is entered into a global research database called REDCap.

Working from a script of questions, Mellacheruvu says she interviews around four or five people each day who have tested positive for COVID-19. The interviews are voluntary, and Mellacheruvu says it can be difficult to get some people to discuss their cases.

“The saddest part of this is that most of the calls I make are to health care workers like nursing assistants and nurse practitioners,” Mellacheruvu says. “These are people who contracted the virus while they were working hard to treat the patients infected with the coronavirus.”

After five hours of online training to become a contact tracer, Codyer says his first call was fairly typical: a younger person who lived alone, had experienced only mild symptoms and was open to sharing information about their potential contacts.

But he’s also had to speak with the family of someone who died from the virus.

“We have to be extremely delicate with those conversations,” Codyer says. “I offered my sympathies, explained what we were doing and offered a better time to get back in touch."

Codyer, a native of Pepperell, earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Kennedy College of Sciences in 2014. He has worked for bioscience company MillporeSigma for the past four years and is currently field service quality specialist for the North America lab water division. He says the systems that he manages are playing an important role in hospitals that are dealing with the coronavirus.

“I’m happy that my job gives me flexibility for the contact tracing work,” says Codyer, who spends four to five hours a day making calls.

With his fiancée, Amy McGrath, nine months pregnant, Codyer is also on standby for the birth of their first child.

"It’s crazy times, but life goes on some way,” says Codyer, who is grateful for the opportunity to volunteer as a result of UML’s relationship with the MDPH. “Looking out years from now, I’ll be able to say that I tried to do what I could to help.”