ImpactWinter/Spring 2021

Tracing Careers in Public Health

The University of Indianapolis contact tracing team is tracking the coronavirus in real time and providing students with valuable field experience.

Ensuring all students have ways to complete their education, no matter the circumstances, has always been a priority at the University of Indianapolis. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, the University deployed a variety of methods to keep campus safe, including calling on the expertise of UIndy health science and nursing students, as operations continued throughout 2020.

Integral to the University’s response was the ability to track virus activity within the campus community. That’s where the contact tracing team stepped in. Contact tracing determines who has developed COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and who may have been exposed. A period of quarantine for those exposed, or isolation for those who are infected, mitigates community spread. Keeping the case numbers as low as possible while providing support and resources for the sick and exposed is the goal.

“There is so much unknown about this pandemic that makes it that much more important for us to take necessary precautions to try to avoid it spreading further,” said Kirsti Oswalt ’18 (exercise science) ’20 (M.S., public health), who leads the University’s contact tracing team. 

The team includes graduate assistants from the UIndy Public Health Program and School of Nursing students who are gaining clinical experience in community health. All team members have participated in training developed by nationally-recognized organizations such as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The team is trained to comply with FERPA and HIPAA guidelines, ensuring the University’s contact tracing activities are confidential and protect the privacy of students and employees. 

Since the Fall 2020 semester, students and employees have been required to complete a health screening questionnaire every day they come to campus. If they report symptoms or possible exposure, the contact tracing team begins the process to determine if quarantine or isolation is required.

One of the biggest challenges is the constantly changing nature of the pandemic. The team made several adjustments based on the level of new cases coming in, changes in the weather, and the number of people reporting symptoms through the daily health screenings. They also worked to keep students and employees informed as guidance changed frequently.

We have to make changes to our system whenever the CDC makes new changes and recommendations so that we are doing our part to slow the spread and protect the pack.

Kirsti Oswalt ’18 ’20

Nicholas Powers ’21, a contact tracing team member who is in the Second Degree Accelerated Nursing Program, praised the team’s success in continuing to meet its goals pertaining to patient confidentiality and lowering transmission rates on campus.

Nicholas Powers ’21

“The UIndy team not only works in contact tracing but also works in leading the community to asymptomatic testing to make sure that we can screen as many people as possible to help in fighting the transmission of the virus,” Powers said.

Two graduate assistants, Samantha Mundt ’21 (public health education and promotion) ’22 (M.S., public health) and Destinee Ward ’21 (M.S., public health), serve on the contact tracing team and can attest to the rapidly evolving nature of their work. Learning to shift gears quickly has been the key to operating efficiently as they hone their public health skills. Determining an infected person’s contacts and movements, and then informing people who may have been exposed, is no small task.

Destinee Ward ’21

“The biggest change from the beginning of the semester is my speed in calls. Having to get in contact with 80 to 100 people within a day can be challenging,” said Ward. 

The team developed flexibility in details, such as working from home instead of in the office, or focusing on emails rather than phone calls to increase the response rate. 

Mundt said she has a newfound appreciation for the importance of transparency during crisis situations. 

Samantha Mundt ’21

“Communication and empathy have been a big part of my role as a contact tracer. Not only do I need to be able to share and gather important information but I also need to show empathy when discussing a topic,” she said.

Oswalt sees a direct connection to the work of the contact tracing team and the Master of Public Health Program’s emphasis on being open to a world of possibilities. 

“We learn all aspects of health and how we as public health professionals can play a part in shaping and improving the health of those in the communities we live in,” Oswalt said. “There is always a place for us to help those in our community, in our country, and even across the globe.”