As Daniel Howell ’16 ’18 was completing his bachelor’s degree in public health, a powerful epidemic was tightening its grip.
It was spring 2016, and Massachusetts was losing four people a day to opioid drug overdoses. What could a college student do in the face of such a crisis?
“I decided to reach out to the Lowell Health Department," Howell says. "I was interested in the work they do, what was going on in the state with drug abuse, opioid abuse, substance abuse. I wanted to have a more hands-on approach to things, to test the skills I'd learned in the classroom."
He got an internship with the Lowell Health Department working on community outreach, including helping to run a forum at which police and health workers spoke to parents and families to educate them and enlist their help.
As he embarked on his master’s degree in public health through the bachelor’s-to-master’s degree program, he got a new internship on the community outreach team at Lowell General Hospital. He and his supervisor worked to educate and provide resources to community groups and institutions, including UMass Lowell. At the same time, Howell worked for the university’s Wellness Center as a drug and alcohol educator on campus.
"My professors made a point of steering me toward real-world experience. It's not just books that matter. The internships put me in the middle of what I was learning in class and reinforced it," he says.
His internship and work experience, as well as his academics, prepared him well for the job he got upon graduation with his master’s degree: Working at Lowell Community Health Center as a project manager for the Office-Based Addiction Treatment Program.
For two years, Howell helped to coordinate care for people struggling with addiction to alcohol, opioids and cocaine. He also did outreach to families, nonprofits working with homeless people, clergy and other community organizations to educate them and let them know about treatment resources.
“The big piece is having everyone on board so that everyone knows how they play a part in that person’s recovery – family members, pastors, doctors and counselors,” he says.
And all of those experiences prepared him for a new epidemic: COVID-19.
In late March 2020, when COVID-19 led to the shutdown of many services, Howell was furloughed from the health center. A couple of months later, he was brought back to be the project manager and on-site coordinator for the Stop the Spread campaign in Lowell, part of a state effort to provide free testing to any city residents who wanted it, whether or not they had symptoms, at mobile drive-up and walk-up testing sites in different neighborhoods.
Howell was grateful to be back at work, doing what he loves: helping in the midst of a public health crisis. He says the outreach work for Stop the Spread was very similar to his outreach work on opioids.
“We were trying to reach the people who may need the help the most because they don’t have insurance or they’re at home with their children and they can’t get to a regular testing center,” he says.
Stop the Spread was managed by Lowell Community Health Center in partnership with the Lowell Health Department and Trinity EMS. Several UMass Lowell students volunteered, too – gaining the same kind of hands-on experience that Howell got when he was a student.
Howell says the UML volunteers fit right in.
“They all came with their own set of skills already, in public health or nursing,” he says. “They could think on their feet; they were ready to jump right into it – and that’s what they did.”