Medical school students volunteer to help track spread of coronavirus

30 April 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Medical students across Alberta are stepping into battle against the spread of COVID-19.

For the past month, hundreds of students from the universities of Alberta and Calgary have been part of an investigative team tracing the spread of COVID-19. They are calling people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in an effort to trace others who may have been exposed to the virus.

Zosia Prus-Czarnecka

“This contact tracing is the backbone of containing this virus,” said Zosia Prus-Czarnecka, a third-year medical student at the University of Alberta. She’s one of 120 medical students in Edmonton volunteering at the Alberta Health Services downtown office.

“We all entered medicine to help people. That’s the goal and root of our work. Even though we can’t be in the clinics and hospitals right now, it’s great to have this impact and to help limit the spread in this way.”

The students are responsible for compiling a detailed history of a person’s symptoms, whereabouts, and the people they have contacted. If those contacts have symptoms, those people are tested for COVID-19 and asked to trace back their own history up to two days before symptoms first appeared. If a person does not have symptoms, they must still self-isolate for at least two weeks.

“Asking people to trace back what they’ve done for the past two weeks can be quite the mental exercise,” said Shawn Dodd, a third-year medical student at the U of A.

“Typically we ask them to check their credit card statements. Not to expose that information, but just to see what grocery stores they went to, if they took an Uber somewhere, and see if that helps jog their memories.”

As well, many COVID-19 patients are hesitant to disclose personal information. To reach the co-workers of a person who has tested positive, students often have to first contact the employer.

Shawn Dodd

“There are a lot of scams out there right now, so people can be skeptical to disclose even their date of birth,” said Dodd. “We have Alberta Health Services phone numbers so that’s been very helpful. For the most part people understand the situation, and especially with helping us contacting their friends and family, they’re more willing to disclose information.”

To thank the students for their work, Covenant Foundation and real estate company ROHIT Group recently donated $10,000 worth of gift cards.

“There is a lot of focus on frontline health-care workers, but there are also thousands of people behind the scenes who are doing very important work,” said Tracy Sopkow, chief executive officer of Covenant Foundation. “It’s great to be able to support them all.”

Dr. Grace Salvo, a medical officer with Alberta Health Services, believes the work of these students has helped protect the province from overrun hospitals. As of April 30, Alberta had 5,165 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 86 people in hospital and 22 people in intensive care units.

“One of the key measures for containment is the work these medical students are doing: identifying cases early, notifying them, finding the contacts and limiting the spread,” Salvo said. “I think the efforts of these students is indirectly causing the frontline staff to not see so many cases.”

The contact tracing effort began last March, when medical students were pulled from their clinical duties because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those students sought other ways they could be of service.

“It really came from the students’ desire to help. These medical students were looking for a way they could help with the COVID response without being on the front lines,” Salvo said.

Dr. Grace Salvo

“There were conversations at that time in Calgary, where public health officials identified this need for contact tracing and the difficulty of keeping it up with current staff. From there the students were trained first in Calgary and the program was then brought to Edmonton.”

In recent weeks, the students have been further challenged by the pandemic. Dodd has been particularly busy since mid-April, as case numbers have surged to as many as 319 a day.

“One day this past week my team was in touch with 76 contacts,” he said. “A lot of our daily work is phone calls, and those phone calls can be pretty long. For a lot of people there’s a lot of unknowns and anxieties about this virus and what testing positive really means.

“So it’s been an important test and experience for us, to see how we break bad news and how we walk patients through this process.”

With the recent rise in cases, Prus-Czarnecka says it can be very stressful work.

“This virus is evolving. We’ve never seen anything like this in Alberta and our protocols can change day to day,” she said. “One of our biggest challenges is learning to adapt quickly but also having a sustainable plan where we can do our work orderly.”

Despite the challenges, the experience has taught students skills in leadership and communicating with patients. Given the historic and unprecedented nature of this health crisis, it’s an opportunity most medical students will never see.

“It’s going to guide us quite well in our long-term careers,” Dodd said. “You go into medicine to help people. So when we all got pulled from our clinic duties, we all wanted to find a way to fill the gaps and help in someway. I think everyone’s just excited to be a part of it.”