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On the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Battle

BYU students and faculty lead in the fight against the pandemic and offer advice about how to stay safe and connect with others from what they have learned.

BYU students and faculty are working on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

As contact tracers, BYU students Jenesis Rodriguez, Rebekah Read, and Levi Severson contact individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and record data. Rodriguez said, “I get to give people the information they need and empower them to stay safe.” She explained that the people they call are often unsure of what they need to do, nervous about being exposed or endangering others, or unaware that they have been exposed. The contact tracers explain how quarantine works and help people feel more confident. Severson added, “I feel like I have a positive impact on the world. I enjoy going to work and feeling like I’m helping protect the public health.”

Dr. Ali Crandall, a public health professor, has adapted to the challenges of teaching both in person and online. She said, “There’s a lot of things we can still do, we just need to do them differently. With a mask, distance, hand washing, and small groups, we can do most things.”

Dr. Chantel Sloan, another public health professor, has been involved in a research project that models the likely risk of transmission on BYU campus. Dr. Sloan says, “It feels good to be able to say that I can legitimately help people understand what comes next, why things are the way they are, and how we can interact well and safely.” To create the models, Dr. Sloan, Dr. Michael Goodrich from the Department of Computer Science, and Dr. Candice Berrett from the Department of Statistics made a virtual model of the entire BYU campus and compared the risk of transmission for interactions with different people in different parts of campus, and those interactions with or without masks.

What they discovered is in line with the patterns that the contact tracers have seen. Dr. Sloan explained, “Classrooms have not been a major area for spread but housing has been a major area for spread.” As Read observed, “There’s a disconnect in social places. People think that if they are friends with someone, it doesn’t matter if they don’t wear their masks.” Dr. Sloan found that, even if people are socially distanced, they will still have a high risk of transmission if they aren’t wearing masks. In her words, “Masks make a huge difference. If one person shows up wearing a mask, that might give someone else the courage to pull their mask out of their pocket.”

BYU faculty and staff gave recommendations for staying safe and connected with others during the pandemic while keeping with public health recommendations. Several suggested reaching out to family and friends through phone calls. Rodriguez said, “We have to be proactive. You don’t know how much someone on the other end of the phone needs to talk to you or needs that emotional connection.” Dr. Crandall said, “We need that social connection, we need each other, and we need the fresh air when we can get it.” Dr. Sloan recommended “Having difficult conversations with understanding and compassion, creating social bubbles, and giving people room to make difficult decisions.”

BYU Public Health students have also responded to the call for increased testing by the Utah State Public Health Order 2020-27 and the Utah System of Higher Education COVID-19 Intensive Testing Plan. Students who take at least one class in person during winter semester 2021 are asked to be tested within the first ten days of the semester. At one point in the preparations for the testing to begin, the Department of Public Health learned that only 12% of the needed positions for testers were filled. Tanya Gale, Department Secretary, described how “Overnight, over 160 public health students responded. As soon as the students saw a need they jumped on board. The university is so grateful for that response.” These students have adopted the name of “superswabbers,” as they work to increase testing on campus.

As the battle against the pandemic goes on, it’s up to the community to work together with the front line workers, and to stay safe and connected. To find answers to questions about the virus, follow these links to the CDC website and the BYU CoronaVirus website.