By Geoff Larcom / EMU
YPSILANTI – Anyone involved in health care figured there would be a second surge in COVID-19 cases once fall came around. They were right.
Looking ahead to this time, Betty Beard, an emeritus professor of nursing at Eastern Michigan University, decided to apply for training as a volunteer contact tracer with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Beard, a former director of the EMU School of Nursing, started working shifts in July and planned to work one three-hour shift per week.
In September, MDHHS contact tracers had about 3,000 calls in the pipeline each day. Fast forward to October. Now there are about 12,000 per day – and this number is expected to continue to rise.
“These do not include people receiving daily text messages monitoring their health,” Beard said. “MDHHS helps local health departments throughout the state but many counties, such as Oakland and Washtenaw, do their own tracing. So, these numbers also do not reflect the true number of Michiganders who are ‘contacts’.”
College students become the focus
Contacts are people that have been exposed to an actual or possible COVID-19 case. In the summer, Beard said, the calls seemed to be to skewed toward adults exposed to COVID. Once college students moved back to campuses and schools started up, most calls shifted to a younger group.
Beard says she is now trying to volunteer nearly every day – for one to five hours – since the need is so great to try to reach as many people as possible.
She estimates making at least 1,200-1,500 calls and has talked with people living in nearly every area of both Michigan peninsulas. Some of the calls have made her laugh out loud and some have brought tears.
“Having worked as a nurse for nearly 50 years, I’m used to working with the general public so I have heard nearly everything someone can say,” Beard said. “Having experience in any type of setting with diverse populations or with people from different walks of life is most helpful when working as a volunteer.”
Beard explains that the purpose of the calls is to explain that the person has been exposed to COVID and they are to be in self-quarantine during their monitoring period of 14 days. They are assessed for symptoms. Recommendations are made for testing. Resources for coping with COVID related issues are discussed and shared. Many times, volunteers will be able to directly connect a contact with a 2-1-1 operator in their county – these operators can provide direct help with issues such as food security.
“Most people are aware that they have been exposed to COVID but some are not,” Beard said. “Contact tracers have no information about who the positive case might be. Since schools started up, parents are told by schools that they would be contacted for guidance on quarantine.”
“Can I get you on speaker phone?”
Beard notes that a good way to reduce stress for parents is to ask about how their family will cope with a quarantined member and listen as they work through their possible solutions. For instance, she reports having talked with many parents of very young children
“It is nearly impossible to quarantine a four-year-old in a household,” Beard said. “So, I rely on my experiences as a maternal-child nurse and as a mother and grandmother to help parents and grandparents deal with quarantining younger children.”
Beard adds that parents of teens are fun because most teens are, naturally, already “quarantining” away from their families (as a normal way of living their lives). Teens deal with different stressors, since they must be away from friends for two weeks. Beard says she often suggests that teens get outdoors for Vitamin D and proposes that doing yardwork is good for health.
To which parents have laughed and said, in effect: “Wait. Can I get you on speaker phone?”
Volunteers strongly needed
If anyone is interested in training as a MDHSS contact tracer, they can go to the Michigan Coronavirus site and apply as a “Public Health Volunteer.” A background check is done before training can be arranged. Several other EMU staff members are also serving as volunteer contact tracers.
Betty remains in touch with Eastern. She is still teaching a course called “Global Health Issues” for both public health students and nurses who are returning for their BSN.
“Unfortunately, as fall moves into winter, there will be an increased need for volunteer contact tracers,” Beard said. “The good news is that the state of Michigan is doing an incredible job with contact tracing. I am just one member of the army of volunteers who are doing their best to keep Michiganders safe during this public health crisis.”
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University’s Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University’s website.