The Corona Corps, the University of Oregon’s student contact tracing team, has provided contact monitoring and COVID-19 case management support for the UO community and throughout Lane County since its formation in early July.
The initiative has since expanded its contract tracing and adjusted to match infection surges in the county and at the university. The Corona Corps added a second team on Sept. 16 to help provide people with information about basic resources like food, housing and healthcare during their isolation or quarantine period.
The Corona Corps consists of the Monitoring Team and the Care Team, both made up of student workers. Psychology professor Jeffrey Measelle and Angela Long, director of public health practices and health outcomes improvement at University Health Services, co-direct the Corona Corps.
Universities around the country and internationally have adopted models similar to the Corona Corps or replicated elements of the program, Measelle said, including the University of Washington, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Melbourne in Australia. UO has taken notes from other schools, as well.
On the Care Team, Long said students reach out to people who have tested positive and discuss what resources they need to successfully stay isolated or quarantine. These resources include groceries, academic support and financial support.
So far, the Care Team has helped nearly 1,200 individuals since Corona Corps added the team in September, Long said. She said both teams are significantly busier when infection numbers rise in the community.
Currently, the Care Team includes 13 active student workers, while the Monitoring Team includes 37.
The heart of the Monitoring Team’s work, Measelle said, is the initial call to a community member who has been identified as a close contact of a positive case. Workers also check in daily with positive cases.
“The complexity of our work is in that call,” Measelle said. “It’s notifying somebody, working through whatever their reactions are and establishing with them clarity and understanding with what’s involved in quarantining.”
At the peak of case surges in the community, the team made over 150 initial calls per day, he said. Total calls currently average about 500 per day.
Measelle said the Monitoring Team has provided support to over 15,000 community members since July. The team currently handles up to 80% of community contact tracing in Lane County, partially due to staffing limitations for Lane County.
Measelle said the corps only dealt with about 40 to 50% of the county’s contact tracing in September, and he predicts it might handle almost 100% before the end of December.
Measelle attributes the decline in UO-related COVID-19 cases to smart messaging by the students who work for the corps and their ability to connect and work with congregate student living communities like UO’s Fraternity and Sorority Life.
“The students on the team are really in a position to communicate directly and influence peers,” he said.
The Corona Corps is based on the “tried and tested model” of having both active workers and a reserve of trained students ready to work if COVID-19 cases rise, Measelle said. He said the team is like a yo-yo or an accordion the way the number of active workers has expanded and contracted since its inception.
The corps is primarily operated like a call center, Measelle said, with socially distanced work stations at University Health Services. He said it’s critical that students are able to turn around and ask others questions when necessary.
Because many students left the area over Thanksgiving break, operations shifted towards a hybrid model allowing some students to work remotely, Long said. Even in remote situations, students work in confidential settings, she said.
Hailey Volk and Joe Chock are both seniors at UO working for the Corona Corps. Volk started working for the Monitoring Team in June as part of the “initial 16,” she said, while Chock started working for the Care Team in September.
They have both noticed positive changes in the corps’ relationship with the community since they started and since people have learned more about the virus.
“We’re not trying to punish students for getting COVID — that’s not at all what we’re about,” Chock said. “I think there’s a lot of fear that that’s what we are. Really, we’re trying to help them and help our community stay safe.”
Volk and Chock agreed that working for the Corona Corps and talking to those impacted by the virus — rather than just seeing statistics — has affected their own views on COVID-19.
“It serves as a constant reminder for me of why we’re doing this and how important it is for the community,” Volk said. “Which I feel like I’m really fortunate to have this reminder, because it’s not over. In reality, it’s worse than it was in the first wave.”
Chock said he’s constantly reminding people about the importance of following regulations.
“I’m a senior, there’s people I want to see, but I’ve been very vocal with all my friends and with people asking me to hang out, that it’s just not something we can do,” he said. “It’s a sacrifice, and it’s not how I envisioned my senior year at all, but it's a sacrifice that I'm more than willing to make because I know it's necessary.”