For many college students, the limits imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it challenging to secure internships that will help them attain real-world experience in their field of interest. But that’s no longer a concern for a group of Loyola Marymount University students from departments across campus. Through their work as Los Angeles County Department of Public Health contact tracers, they’re not only gaining invaluable training, but are serving as important players in the fight against COVID-19.
Approximately 40 LMU students are participating in the program, which started with 40 hours of training during their winter break, followed by at least 120 hours over the course of this semester working virtually as part of teams that complete an eight-hour shift every weekend. Their work is essential to the county’s public health COVID-19 response. They contact individuals who just tested positive to ensure that they’re aware of their result and have the resources they need to carry out their quarantine. They also ascertain who else might be at risk based on their recent contacts so that those individuals can be notified and take proper precautions to minimize the spread.
“This has been a great experience for our students, particularly those who want to go into the health care field,” says Stephanie Beaudion, visiting professor of health and human sciences, who is supervising the student interns. “From home, they’re able to work on the front lines in the fight against this pandemic, seeing firsthand how the protocols are changing based on new developments and learning about the importance of interpersonal skills as they collect information from people at an extremely sensitive time.”
Olivia Keller, a health and human sciences senior who plans to become a physician assistant, was frustrated by the lack of internship opportunities in the health care field amid the pandemic. Then she learned about L.A. County’s contact tracing program. The program requires students to establish a team through their university, with a faculty mentor overseeing them. “I reached out to Professor Beaudion and she was so supportive,” Keller recalls. “She said, ‘If this is something you want to do, we’ll make it happen. ’She put out the word, and I was overwhelmed by the response.”
The LMU contact tracing interns are separated into teams of five to seven students who work in tandem during their shift, contacting the people and places where exposures are likely to have occurred. Following a script provided by the county public health department, the interns sometimes spend as long as 45 minutes to an hour during each interview with a case or contact going through a series of questions. “It’s really important to set a good tone —even though we’re following a script, we don’t want to sound robotic,” says Samuel Corona, a sophomore psychology major. “My job is to get information, but also to be empathetic and non-judgmental, answer any questions I can, and then refer them for any medical questions they might have.” Corona, who plans to go to medical school, says the majority of the people he reaches are appreciative of the interaction. “At the end of one call, I had a person thank me for reminding me he counted.”
“This is a lesson in active listening and compassion,” says Keller, who serves as a team leader and works closely with Beaudion to manage the program at LMU. “Most of the people we’re calling are scared, and in our role representing the L.A.County Department of Public Health, we hold a special position for them. To have someone listening during this very vulnerable time is important, and it’s rewarding to feel like we’re making a difference both for these individuals and for public health.”