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The University of Oregon campus stands empty after all finals become online due to the spread of the coronavirus. (Maddie Knight/Emerald)

With COVID-19 cases spreading rapidly across the nation in mid-April, a group of University of Oregon administrators, professors and faculty members began planning an extensive contact tracing program that would employ students in the fight against the pandemic. Now, with the virus still raging throughout the country, many have turned to the successes of the UO Student Corps to Combat Coronavirus, otherwise known as the “Corona Corps.”

The governors of Washington, Oregon and California released a joint statement on April 13, creating the Western States Pact. Shortly after, Dennis Galvan, the dean and vice-provost for global engagement, began looking at ways other countries were attempting to tackle COVID-19.

“That got me thinking,” Galvan said, “this is a great global learning opportunity for students.”

It gave UO two opportunities, Galvan said. First, they could offer classes that relate to the public health response. Second, they could get students involved in the urgent need for contact tracers – which the United States would need hundreds of thousands of to get the pandemic under control, Galvan said.

This led Galvan to psychology professor Jeff Measelle, anthropology professor Josh Snodgrass and Angela Long, the director of public health practices and health outcomes at the University Health Center. With the help of a few other faculty and Lane County Public Health, the Corona Corps began to take shape.

“This evolved very, very rapidly,” Measelle said. “Unlike a lot of academic programs and plans and initiatives that can sometimes take a long time to roll out, this one really got off the page and jumped into reality really quickly.”

Measelle said the plan moved from being an educational idea to becoming a practical and experiential hands-on program.

“By the time we got to mid-June,” Galvan said, “we had a training program put together and we had students applying to start it, and then they started working in early July.”

The training program takes about 20 hours of intensive training on public health, sociology and psychology. The program concludes with a contact tracer certification test accredited by the Association of State and Tribal Health Organizations. Once complete, the students become qualified tracers employable by organizations contracted through the state of Oregon, like LCPH. 

On top of the accreditation and paid hours, students receive tuition-free credits, according to Measelle and Galvan. Tracers earn two credits for completing the training and are eligible for up to four credits, depending on their specific degree program requirements such as the global health minor.

Forty-two UO students completed the first round of training and 16 started working in early July. That number will increase to roughly 80 in August, with UO training about 100 more, according to Galvan. Additionally, the Corona Corps is training students from Lane Community College and Central Oregon Community College.

The system works through fluctuating the number of reserve tracers on call, depending on COVID-19 numbers released. 

“The concern is there that surges are going to keep coming for some time,” Measelle said.

In response to this fear, the team presented the idea to LCPH in which the UO team would train up enough student tracers to provide the county with a “reserve pipeline,” allowing the operation to expand and contract as the need for contract tracers fluctuated, according to Measelle.

Additionally, this reserve pipeline would allow the Corona Corps to work around busy student schedules, Galvan said.

Noa Cohen, a senior at the Clark Honors College who got involved with the Corona Corps early in its development, said that tracers contact a little over 100 people every day, seven days a week.

Of those contacted, the vast majority have been overwhelmingly receptive, Cohen said.

“I think that there's a sense of urgency in our community to do the right thing and I think people have a really strong grasp of how their actions can impact their community,” Cohen said. “So for the most part, people have been really receptive and really looking forward to kind of doing the right thing.”

According to Cohen, after receiving and reviewing cases from LCPH every morning, the tracers begin their initial calls to people who need to be notified of possible exposure or contact to a positive COVID-19 case. The tracers ask those contacted to quarantine for two weeks.

“We essentially just walk them through what quarantine is going to look like for them, best ways to stay safe and healthy while at home with family members or other members of the household, arranging testing if they need it, making sure that they're healthy and they don’t have symptoms,” Cohen said. “And if they do have symptoms, connecting them with a public health nurse so that they can monitor them.”

Tracers will also work as liaisons for case managers to determine any additional help people may need during the course of their quarantines, like finding ways to deliver groceries or thermometers.

After their initial calls, tracers spend the majority of their day following up with cases. The calls are often quick, Cohen said. “We just ask them how they're doing, if they have any symptoms today, and if they have any questions or any resources that they need,” she said.

“You know, we're called tracers, monitors or whatever, but really, what we're doing is just checking in to make sure people are healthy and doing okay, and we're always happy to listen when people need to get some frustration out,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen, none of the information is going anywhere public and will stay strictly confidential. In this way, the Corona Corps acts as a resource to answer questions, monitor symptoms and make sure that those contacted are doing okay, she said.

“Lane County Public Health is here for you. The community is here for you. You’re not in this alone,” she said.

Cohen said the most rewarding part of being a tracer is being able to be equipped with information to put people at ease and give them peace of mind.

And, as the Corona Corps grows, Galvan and the team are working towards making it an integral feature of Oregon’s fight against COVID-19. 

Measelle said UO is talking with the Oregon Health Authority to use Corona Corps as a potentially statewide resource, with the capacity to deploy remotely to help Oregon counties hit hard by COVID-19. 

“We're hoping that the success with which we're doing this and the impact that it's having will be viewed by other counties as a resource, and they'll want to adopt it too,” he said.

The Corona Corps model has been in high demand after the successes it has achieved in Lane County. Universities such as the University of Colorado, UCLA, and others have reached out to learn how to implement a similar model.

“What we want to do is either take the Corona Corps model, and say to another university, ‘Here you go. Here's what we did,’” Galvan said. “We will happily walk you through it, answer any questions for your partner in setting it up, but share it so others can copy it and replicate it.”

Now, the Corona Corps is hoping to provide more than a model for other universities to follow. Galvan and other faculty are working toward developing student learning communities that will give student tracers the opportunity to check in with other students at UCLA or the University of Colorado.

These learning communities have the opportunity to go global, Galvan said. Universities in Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico and Ecuador have also reached out to implement something similar.

According to Galvan, this will allow students doing public health work around the world to get together regularly to share what they're doing and to learn from each other.

“It's a very collaborative process. A lot of teamwork is involved in giving our contacts the best care that we can give them,” Cohen said. “And, I would say overwhelmingly, we do feel hopeful mostly because of the receptiveness of our contacts.”

Information on the Corona Corps can be found on its website.

News Reporter

Nick is a news reporter for the Daily Emerald. Send him story ideas at nrosenberger@dailyemerald.com.