Casey Barber was following news of the novel coronavirus long before most of us knew how serious the pandemic would become. It was the kind of thing the doctoral student, specializing in infectious diseases at the School of Public Health, was naturally inclined to monitor. .
Theory, though, became practice all too quickly.
Barber, who earned her bachelor's in public health from UNLV in 2017, is one of two doctoral students, along with Jacklynn DeLeon helping to lead a team of five students in assisting the Southern Nevada Health District with contact tracing for patients who tested positive for COVID-19.
As people are confirmed to be infected with the virus, the task falls to Barber, DeLeon, and their team to start gathering information on where COVID-19 patients may have been, calling their contacts who may have been exposed, staying in touch for health updates, and advising on isolation and quarantine protocols.
These contacts are also enrolled in the health district's program for self-reporting, where they can use an app to access information and report any symptoms.
"All these public health students wanted to do was to be able to do something to help in a safe way that could make a difference in our community," Barber said.
Assistant professor Brian Labus, who used to serve as the health district's senior epidemiologist, helped connect UNLV to the government agency. Labus also served on Gov. Steve Sisolak's COVID-19 medical advisory team. When the call went out, more than 80 students responded and said they were willing to help.
The current team comprises graduate students, but the possibility remains to add more undergraduates to the roster over the course of the pandemic.
Students are receiving internship credit for their work, which is especially important as the pandemic put on hold some of the usual opportunities offered to students, said Shawn Gerstenberger, dean of the School of Public Health. The school also is working to secure donations that will be used to pay a stipend to those working for the health district.
From the students, Gerstenberger said, it’s a tremendous opportunity to be on the front line of a public health intervention. "It's unfortunate, and I don't want to see anybody get sick ever, but this is when public health [practitioners] need to step up and do their part. And these students helping the district are absolutely doing that. What an experience when you go to interview for jobs, when you graduate to say that you've done this, that you've got hands-on experience. Hopefully we never have another one, but if we do, hopefully these future professionals will make us better prepared."
Students received training from the health district on March 30 and were working the phones in a call center set up in the school’s offices by March 31.
Barber can't even gauge how many calls her or the team have made after just a week of working the phones — contacts beget more contacts to trace as the health district tries to stay ahead of the virus. If it isn't the virus, they're trying to stay ahead of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that shift, like so much information during the pandemic, from day to day.
But the experience is unique perhaps in the last 100 years for any students interested in public health careers. It's a first-hand look at the discipline at a time when it faces its deepest, most robust challenges.
"When Dr. Labus started talking about the possibility for students to be involved, it was amazing that we would be able to help," Barber said. "It's been a tremendous experience for a student of public health."