Public Health Students Have Boots on the Ground in COVID-19 Fight

When the Ohio Department of Health sought help this summer for work on the COVID-19 pandemic response, more than 110 students from Kent State University’s College of Public Health raised their hands to volunteer.

Five faculty members also volunteered to be part of the Public Health Assist Teams create by the state health department to aid local health departments and community agencies perform work that included contact tracing of the virus and public communications.

State officials put together a team of 68 members, and selected seven Kent State students, both graduate and undergraduate, from among those who had volunteered. 

“Kent State students account for more than 10 percent of this volunteer workforce that has been deployed for COVID-19 contact tracing and assistance with risk communication,” said Matthew Stefanak, an instructor in public health who serves as the college’s liaison to the Ohio Department of Health.
Public Health instructor Matthew Stefanak

Stefanak retired after serving 25 years as the Mahoning County Health Commissioner in Youngstown, and in addition to teaching part-time at Kent State, works as a consultant tor the Association of Ohio Health Commissioners, through which he serves as a liaison for public health emergency preparedness.

He has been involved in the pandemic response serving as a link between the state and local health departments. When he heard about the state health department trying to put together a volunteer workforce, Stefanak said he was eager to make sure Kent State students were aware of the opportunity. 

The initial work was for students to help with painstaking work of contact tracing, in which health workers need to call individuals closely connected to someone who tests positive for COVID-19, to help trace the virus’s spread.

“All of the work is done virtually, over the phone. It does require some training on how to perform the work and the people skills to have a bedside manner to engage them,” Stefanak said. 

The key aspect of the work, he explained, is engaging with people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and convincing them to quarantine for 14 days.

Stefanak said he was pleased Kent State had such a high number of students chosen for the effort, because it is once-in-a-lifetime training for students. 

“This is real shoe leather epidemiology,” he said. “It is really challenging work and an unprecedented opportunity for students to learn shoe leather epidemiology.”

Tam Ngoc Minh Nguyen, a doctoral student in Health Policy Management, has been assigned to work for the Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Services in Cleveland, where she is helping to craft messages for the agency to use on its Facebook and other social media accounts.
Tam Nguyen is a doctoral student at Kent State University's College of Public Health.

Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, said she is on a team with three other students from different universities, who meet virtually three times each week to develop messaging for the agency to use.

“We’re trying to keep people informed of COVID-19 and available health services,” she said. “We are helping to manage their social media to spread the word about community health and affordable health services.”

The team uses Facebook and Instagram and also is working to improve the look of the agency’s website, she said.

Nguyen came to Kent State in July 2017 as a Fulbright Scholar and earned her master’s degree in public health in May 2019.  She returned to Kent State to begin work on a doctorate degree in public health later in 2019, and currently has a graduate assistantship in which she works in the trauma department at Cleveland Clinic Akron General.  

Tito Bufford, of Orwell, a senior who expects to graduate in December with his bachelor’s degree in public health/allied health, has been assigned to work for the Warren City Health Department where he, too, has been working on communications efforts.

Tito Bufford is a student in Kent State University's College of Public Health.
Bufford said his work has included creating slides that accurately reflect the health department’s updated statistics for COVID-19 and posting them to the department’s social media channels. 

Bufford said he was a bit taken aback by how the public was negatively reacting to the information once it was posted. “It was a little shocking,” he said of the negative response.

Stefanak said not only is the volunteer work a great public service, it also further establishes a resourceful pipeline between the College of Public Health and the public health workforce.

“We are graduating a lot of students and we want the best of them to go into state and local health departments,” he said. 

Stefanak said there is a strong chance that a lot of the students will gain employment in these various health departments, particularly because working on the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will go on for years and there is fresh state and federal money for health departments to hire extra staff to handle the workload. 

“We hope to see a lot of these students get these jobs,” he said.

Other student volunteers currently in the field are graduate students Alyssa Hosom, (MPH - Epidemiology) assigned to the Morgan County Health Department,  Jacob Marvin (MS - Clinical Epidemiology) assigned to the Warren City Health Department,  Shazia Sheikh (MPH - Health Policy and Management) assigned to the Allen County Health Department, Maria Dewaher (MPH - Epidemiology) and Christina Berardinelli (MPH - Health Policy and Management), both assigned to the Carroll County Health Department.

Banner Photo by Julia M. Cameron from Pexels

POSTED: Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 6:13pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, August 4, 2020 - 3:37pm
Lisa Abraham