In winter of 2020, Dr. Carolyn Cannuscio, Director of Research for CPHI, was teaching an MPH class called Epidemics. As the pandemic spread, Carolyn and her colleague Rachel Feuerstein-Simon (MPH alum and CPHI Research Manager) changed the curriculum to focus on what was happening in real time. At the same time, Carolyn was reaching out to colleagues in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the University of Pennsylvania’s Health System to see what assistance Penn Public Health could give as public health professionals. This resulted in standing up a contact tracing effort.
The Penn Contact Tracing Team worked primarily with Penn Medicine, following up with newly diagnosed patients to identify their contacts and then inform the contacts of their possible exposure. This all-volunteer group included students from social work, public health, and nursing, who used this experience as part of their required internships, fieldwork, or community service. In 10 months, this group has included over 150 volunteers, who have logged nearly 7000 calls. As part of their conversations with cases and contacts, these volunteers also educated, assessed for social needs (referring to SNRT as necessary), and sometimes just provided an empathetic ear to people who were scared, confused, and anxious.
It’s important to highlight those that helped develop and organize the whole contact tracing model at Penn, especially the three Penn student volunteers who took on the early leadership roles: Kierstyn Claycomb, MPH student, and Nawar Naseer and Katie Strelau, two students in the Cell and Molecular Biology graduate doing the Public Health Certificate Program (PHCP). Kierstyn has now been hired by the University to lead faculty and staff contact tracing efforts . For Nawar and Katie, the move from laboratory experiments to a pandemic was eye opening, and it has changed their career aspirations towards public health.
Rachel Feuerstein-Simon shared this about the Contact Tracing Effort: “The unique thing about this ongoing effort is its three-pronged nature. It has provided an essential community service for PennMed patients who are newly diagnosed with COVID-19 . It has served as an epidemic control measure, stopping chains of transmission within the community. Finally, It also provided an educational opportunity for students across the University.”