As a contact tracer, Ted Tiffany is a pro at delivering messages people don’t necessarily want to hear. While he doesn’t sugarcoat the news he gives students who’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, he does calmly explain the situation with empathy, kindness and sometimes a little humor to help ease what can be a scary time for some. It’s all about honesty, which students appreciate.

“It’s reminding the students I’m calling that this isn’t ideal, and I wish it wasn’t this way,” the School of Social Work graduate student in Morrison Family College of Health said. “It’s also reminding them this is where we are right now, and it isn’t forever. I treat them with respect and a dose of realism.”

Tiffany is one of a team of 24 contact tracers and care coordinators made up of St. Thomas employees from across departments and a handful of graduate students. The group, which also includes an additional eight people who staff the COVID-19 information line, have become vital in the effort to keep campus open during the global pandemic by helping identify students who need to be in isolation or quarantine.

Given how some other universities have fared, Tiffany was pleasantly surprised St. Thomas was able to continue with in-person learning throughout fall semester.

“It speaks volumes about our whole team, particularly leadership and ITS [Innovation and Technology Services], but also the student body,” he said. “They stepped up and did a good job following protocols. During a time where there’s this constant cloud hanging over people, it’s easy to get lax, but, by and large, everybody stepped up when they needed to.”

A community effort

There are a multitude of reasons campus has remained open since fall semester. From ramped-up hygiene precautions and mass COVID-19 testing events to a variety of options for classes from in-person to online and detailed COVID-19 response information, the university has put the community’s health and safety first.

The Center for Well-Being’s Melanie Tucker, director of health promotion, resilience and violence prevention, along with Lisa Voland, a health case manager, oversee the contact tracing efforts at St. Thomas. They are in constant contact with the Minnesota Department of Health and work closely with many campus entities, including Residence Life, Dining Services, University Action and Response Team, ITS and faculty and staff.

Tucker describes the main parts of her team’s work: Identifying who has a positive COVID-19 case and reaching out to those who’ve been in contact with that person; and care coordination, which requires checking in on isolated (those who have tested positive for COVID-19) and quarantined students (those who have had close contact with someone who has tested positive) to see how they’re doing and what they need.

“We’ve identified more than 750 positive cases and put over 1,300 students in quarantine,” Tucker said. “We monitor the students in quarantine and get them tested as quickly as possible. We’ve seen a number of these students convert to a positive COVID-19 case.

“We had a residence hall earlier in the fall semester that had several cases on one floor,” she continued. “We determined through contact tracing that there was community outbreak. We were able to find that out early and arrange for testing on that floor where we found several asymptomatic cases.”

For the tracers, it’s about making sure students are safe and feel supported. They use contact tracing applications developed by ITS (in Salesforce) and Institutional Data, Analytics and Reporting (in Cognos) to identify COVID-19 clusters on campus and to communicate daily via text messages with students offering them supportive resources, including opportunities to stay connected with peers and health resources.

Connecting with students

Liz Dussol is a retired St. Thomas academic counselor. When the pandemic set in, many of her volunteer activities were canceled and she wasn’t able to travel. She found the perfect outlet for her energy when she was called back to the university to help during the pandemic. She’s now part of the contact tracing team.

Liz Dussol. Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

Liz Dussol. Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

“This is an opportunity to do something toward the pandemic,” Dussol said. “I also love college students. Even though the reason I’m calling them isn’t so good, it’s nice to talk with them and know you’re doing something for the university.”

When she makes those calls, she does her best to set students at ease and explain the situation. Dussol said the university has been very thoughtful and transparent about what they expect from students, faculty and staff and how people can help keep the community safe.

“I worked at the university for 25 years, but now I’m working with people that I hadn’t before from across campus,” she said. “It’s people working together for a common cause.”

Athletics Program Manager Sarah Denn jumped on board when the opportunity to be a contact tracer arose. She helps do contact tracing for student-athletes.

“Most students are willing and able to share information and understand that it’s for the common good, and everyone’s interested in trying to keep the university open,” she said.

Denn said it’s rewarding to see that so many in the campus community have the same goal and are committed to doing the work necessary to keep things open. “It’s not just me calling positive cases, but it’s realizing that what we’re doing is allowing students to continue in-person classes, live in residence halls – all those things they want to experience when they come to the University of St. Thomas.”

Contact tracers also have their fair share of emotional encounters.

“I always feel bad when a student can’t return home and is super bummed that they have to go into isolation on campus,” Denn said. “Trying to make that transition as positive as possible is tricky, especially if the student is far from home. Once you explain the situation to the students – why they need to move out of their residence hall … and go into isolation, they seem to come to terms with it better.”

Sarah Denn - Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

Sarah Denn. Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

Developing skills for the future

Along with helping to keep students safe and the campus open, Tiffany and the other graduate school students working as contact tracers are also learning skills relevant to their future careers.

“They’re gaining knowledge about how public health works,” Tucker said. “They work on communication – how to ask people sensitive questions and get into their business a little bit because that’s what we have to do. They use critical thinking; problem-solving and get creative when accessing resources. They’re also learning the valuable skill of having to work with a team.”

Tiffany said his work as a contact tracer is about reaching out to people, something he’ll be doing a lot of as a social worker.

“I’m getting used to contacting people, to talking to a wide variety of people,” he said. “It’s good practice to try and keep yourself cool under pressure and still remain kind and lighthearted. In my future career, I’ll be dealing with heavy situations and with people that are in similar scary spots. Being able to practice this and help my peers, will help me serve future clients in a similar way.”

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