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UH College of Medicine Now Training "Disease Detectives" to Combat COVID-19

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(Image credit: iStock/BernardaSv)

A recent report from Johns Hopkins University, "A National Plan to Enable Comprehensive COVID-19 Case Finding and Contact Tracing in the US" estimates that   approximately 100,000 contact tracers will be required to assist with Covid-19 pandemic management efforts in the near future. While millions of Americans are currently unemployed, they will need to first be properly trained before stepping into this new vital role. 

To address this need, the University of Houston College of Medicine today launched a free contact tracing and case identification certificate program for UH students, faculty and staff in collaboration with the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health. The Epi Corps (Epidemiology Corps) program will prepare a new type of public health worker trained to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.  

Contact tracing is a core public health strategy to combat COVID-19, along with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates and good hygiene practices. The disease detectives trained during the 12-hour online course could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to help COVID-19 patients recall everyone they’ve had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers could then notify these contacts of their potential exposure, providing education, support and information to understand their risk. 

Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas calls for 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.  

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered online for students, faculty and staff on the Blackboard digital learning platform with plans to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks. The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules. 

The contact tracers-in-training will learn about COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality and more. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.   

Program organizer Bettina Beech, UH associate provost for planning and strategic initiatives and associate dean for research at the College of Medicine, said the training module will continually be updated as the crisis evolves to ensure the latest information is presented.  

The Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. The CDC warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.  

“The expansion of our contact tracing program is an important step forward in helping us understand the spread of COVID-19 in Harris County,” said, Dr. Dana Beckham, director of science, surveillance and technology for Harris County Public Health. “We are grateful that we have such amazing community partners, like the University of Houston, who will play a key role in this challenging, but informative process.”   

Faculty organizers at the College of Medicine hope the Epi Corps training program can be scaled statewide to increase its impact, even as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states.