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Tracking coronavirus: Florida turns to students for help with contact tracing

Hundreds of them are on the front lines of the pandemic, working to bring the disease out of hiding.

Arshiya Patel came from India to study public health at the University of South Florida. She’s focused on epidemiology and global health practice — topics the coronavirus pandemic has pushed to the forefront.

Her interests took root during the 2014 ebola outbreak, as she watched public health workers respond and felt a call to help. Now, she’s doing just that.

“I remember imagining myself on the front lines ... wanting to get out there and contribute,” Patel said. “I wanted to be in the epicenter of a monstrous disease, and right now Florida is the epicenter of COVID — and I’m here.”

Patel, 24, is one of more than 400 public health students from 22 Florida universities who have helped the state with contact tracing, an investigative process used to locate people who have been exposed to an infectious disease. They call those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, then ask them detailed questions about their interactions to track possible spread.

Tedious and time-consuming, the work brings the disease out of hiding. Health officials then fight it by getting people to isolate and find treatment.

Experts, including Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, have said contact tracing is key to suppressing COVID-19 infections. Typically, the state employs about 500 epidemiologists who do that work, but many more are needed in a pandemic.

Even with the students’ help, the number of contact tracers employed by the state has not kept up with the rising number of cases. More than 440,000 infections have been counted since the pandemic’s start, and thousands more are reported each day.

Meanwhile, about 2,600 people are making calls to track cases, Department of Health spokesperson Alberto Moscoso said. It would take more like 5,000 to follow up on the number of cases Florida is seeing, according to Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the USF College of Medicine.

Pinellas County, for example, should have about 200 people doing contact tracing based on its cases, he said. But it currently has about 90, said department of health spokeswoman Maggie Hall. Hillsborough County, which Lockwood suggests should have 435 people tracking cases, has only about 100, said spokesman Kevin Watler.

Still, students are seeing a silver lining: hands-on experience as they work through school and search for jobs, said Dr. Janice Zgibor, an associate dean for the USF College of Public Health. They’re able to see up close the lessons they’ve learned in class.

After being notified of the department’s need in early March, Zgibor sent out a college-wide email: “The state has called for our help. Would you be willing?”

She had more than 200 responses by the next morning, and they continued to flood in. Students were excited and ready to go, she said, so she sent their names to the Department of Health.

Patel, who lives in Tampa, was deployed to the Pinellas health department in June. The state put her up in a hotel, and she works at least six days a week, usually 12 hours a day.

The first few shifts were intimidating, Patel said. She went through extensive training, then started making calls. There was no time to waste as Florida and the Tampa Bay region saw infections surge.

“I really jumped in at a very crucial time, and I was ready to go,” she said. “I was learning, observing and involving those things in my work.”

Most days, she made 20 calls or more.

USF doctoral student, Adriana Campos, was sent to the Duval County health department for two weeks in April. Her first day was filled with trainings, and then she shadowed someone already working in the field.

Not everyone wants to share personal details with contact tracers, said USF master's student Adriana Campos. “I definitely had to build a rapport with some people,” she said. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We would be given positive cases and then follow up with those people to ensure it was them, ask questions about travel and risk factors, then ask them if they would be willing to give us names of people they had been around,” said Campos, 26.

Most were forthcoming, but some were wary of sharing personal details about their friends, family and activities.

“I definitely had to build a rapport with some people,” Campos recalled.

Patel had a similar experience. Some people didn’t believe she was with the health department. Others refused to verify their date of birth, so she couldn’t bring up any medical history.

“It’s really hard to gain trust over the phone from a stranger,” Patel said. “There’s a lot of resistance, a lot of distrust. … So I explain how important it is to share their information and that they would be saving lives if they do.”

For the second week of Campos’ deployment, she moved from general contact tracing to a team focused on responding to an outbreak of cases in long-term care facilities. She monitored cases by phone, entering lab results into a computer system and talking with family members of infected patients.

It was clear to Campos that the department needed help, she said. Existing staff was stretched thin, and she was eager to gain the experience.

“It’s beneficial for the state, but it’s also beneficial for us,” she said. “It gives you the perspective of what is ideal in books and academia versus what happens in practice.”

University of Florida public health student Hunter Ponter was sent to the St. John’s County health department for a month while taking classes online. He’s two weeks away from finishing his master’s in epidemiology.

During his deployment, Ponter, 25, met public health workers who agreed to serve as references as he looks for a job in the field. He’s sure the experience will bolster his resume.

At first, Ponter worked with the department’s data management team to make sure case information was up to date. Then he helped with contact tracing.

He asked people who tested positive about their symptoms and whether they did any traveling recently. He asked them to quarantine for 14 days, then take another test after three days without a fever.

“Almost all of my phone calls were positive,” he said. “People were very willing to help and very cooperative.”

Ponter said it was smart for the state to reach out to universities for help tracking the virus. So many students have knowledge of public health that is ready to be put to work.

“I definitely treat it as an amazing experience, just to use the practices we have been learning in school,” Ponter said. “It’s been amazing to see those practices in effect and actually making a difference in communities.”

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