Public health graduate students Jackie Abramson and Teace Markwalter
Master of Public Health students Jackie Abramson and Teace Markwalter at the New River Health District's COVID-19 drive-thru testing site
Public health graduate student Sarah Work
Master of Public Health student Sarah Work answering the phone for the New River Health District COVID-19 call center

New River Academic Health Department partnership mobilizes volunteers

By Hannah Menefee

Medical Reserve Corps-trained public health students from Virginia Tech’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program and the dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine/MPH program, along with additional faculty and staff, have volunteered at a New River Valley COVID-19 call center and drive-thru testing sites.

The New River Academic Health Department, established in 2015 to strengthen the linkage between public health practice and its academic base in the New River Valley, is helping enable this collaboration and sharing of resources between the New River Health District and the Virginia Tech Department of Population Health Sciences (DPHS). This mutually beneficial partnership is designed to enhance public health instruction, practice, research, and workforce development and to improve community health in the New River Valley.

This year, several activities have been facilitated through the partnership to help the health district with its COVID-19 response efforts. Before the first case of COVID-19 appeared within the health district, a call center was established to answer COVID-19 questions from area residents. As coordinator of the New River Academic Health Department, Sophie Wenzel, assistant professor of practice in DPHS, organized Medical Reserve Corps (MRC)-trained public health students, along with faculty and staff, to volunteer for the call center.

By mid-April, 22 MRC-trained students from Virginia Tech had volunteered at the call center, and 10 students had volunteered at drive-thru testing sites. "Our academic health department partnership was a perfect mechanism to mobilize students, faculty, and staff to address this emergent public health challenge," Wenzel explained. "Our existing relationship helped us act quickly and efficiently to assist the health department with their immediate needs and to provide our MPH students with real-world experience."

MPH student Sarah Work was immediately drawn to the volunteer opportunity. "I got into public health to serve the community, and the first opportunity that opened was the call center," Work said. "It was the epitome of public health: direct contact with the public about a public health emergency regarding an emerging pathogen."

Work drew upon her MPH curriculum in order to be an effective volunteer. "I was so thankful to have the background knowledge from my MPH classes," she said. "Principles of Infectious Diseases helped me understand how the pathogen works and how it can be transmitted, and enabled me to reassure the public, from business owners to the elderly to the local school systems, about what they could do to protect themselves and protect others."

Volunteering at the call center also provided students with knowledge and skills not often learned in the classroom. "I noticed that my communication skills improved dramatically over my hours at the call center," Work said. "I became more confident in my responses and recommendations, and I noticed that the more confident I was, the more reassured the caller was."

Epidemiology Assistant Professor Charlotte Baker partnered with the health district's epidemiologist, Jason Deese, and Erica Short, Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists Applied Epidemiology Fellow, to design a REDCap survey to help screen and schedule individuals for COVID-19 testing.

"The survey had required demographic characteristics and a skip pattern that helped point people to the health district call center, their primary care physician, or the emergency department or to let them know that no action needed to be taken at the time," Baker said. "The tool recently was modified and used when testing became available in the New River Valley and was filled out by health district employees and volunteers answering the call center phones."

Student volunteer activities have now expanded to helping at health district drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites. MPH student Jackie Abramson has volunteered primarily at the drive-thru testing sites, where she has learned how to best provide information to the public about the COVID-19 virus and the importance of social distancing to help flatten the curve.

Like other students, Abramson was eager to get involved with the volunteer opportunities. "I was very interested to see how the health department handles an outbreak and manages public health concerns," she said, "and I wanted to help play a role in this difficult time."

Abramson has also been able to apply knowledge learned in MPH courses to her work at the test sites, including, she said, "the importance of risk perception and how this virus is different in our immune response, to the intricacies of communicating results effectively during a crisis."

As expected, experiences gained from these volunteer activities will inform students' future public health careers. "While this is truly an unprecedented time, this experience was incredibly rewarding, said Abramson, "and I hope to use what I’ve learned in my future career, as both infectious diseases and preparedness are two areas that I’ve been focusing on in my public health graduate studies."

Hannah Menefee is public health program coordinator at VA-MD Vet Med.