Students Helping Students During COVID-19: University Contact-Tracing Program

A student-led COVID-19 contact-tracer program reduced exposures and infections at start of the pandemic.

Infection control is not only necessary in health care settings. When the world shut down, universities needed to identify and isolate individuals exposed to COVID-19. The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) epidemiologists developed and implemented a novel contact-tracing program that reduced COVID-19 exposures and infections on the campus during the 2020-2021 school year. To staff the COVID-19 Contact Tracing & Epidemiology Program (CCTEP), UIC chose to staff with students instead of from the local health department as other universities and colleges have done.

To find out more about the program, Infection Control Today® (ICT®) spoke to Jocelyn Vaughn, MS, MA, research data scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health and one of the study’s lead authors, which was recently published in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC).

Vaughn told ICT® that staffing the CCTEP was vital to its success. “The university could have relied on our local health department, the Chicago Department of Public Health, to contact trace our students and employees, which was a decision taken by many other universities. We opted to develop an indigenous contact tracing program as an alternative and staff it with students. There were a couple of main reasons why we chose students. Number 1 is that they are native to UIC. We expected that the majority of people we served would be students, and we thought that [the students working in the program] would be particularly poised to empathize with the people who they were speaking to on the other line, and [would] also promote good public health behavior and education. Additionally, they tend to be extremely tech savvy and very good at learning new skills quickly and adapting to change.”

ICT® also spoke with Leah Kelemen, a graduate student in the College of Nursing and currently serves as a contact tracer with the program, and Chloe Edmiston, MPH, who is a recent graduate of the UIC School of Public Health (epidemiology/biostatistics) and currently serves as the fulltime supervisor of the CCTEP call center.

Edmiston told ICT® that what surprised her most about working with CCTEP was the backlash on lockdown procedures and where it stemmed from. “It was surprising to me how much of that [backlash] was rooted in fear…in a lack of education and accessible education about COVID-19 and the protocols that are necessary to interrupt transmission. I know that, in my instances with any individuals in our university who were resistant or hesitant about COVID-19 related issues, having the contact tracing team as a resource that you could call and ask about our guidance about what resources we have available assuaged a lot of those fears. And [many] people who were initially resistant came around because they had never had a resource.”

Edmiston said that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “good information about COVID-19,” the individuals giving the information are distant and “somewhat inaccessible for people.” Why UIC’s CCTEP was so successful was because they had “someone on the phone who can talk you through all of the rationale for the guidance.”

For Kelemen, one of the benefits of the program for her has been that she has “become more empathetic and more aware of the plight of my fellow students…[to] help them realize that by doing things that may seem uncomfortable in the interim, like staying home, or like isolating from their family, which is a big ask, [that] they're actually saving lives, even though those lives might be from people they don't know on a personal level, like the person who sits next to you in class [who] you never speak to or someone who sat in your study group, so it's been great to empower students.”