The UNLV School of Public Health is expanding its COVID-19 contact tracing program, thanks to a $3.4 million grant from the State of Nevada. The effort, in partnership with the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD), will employ more than 200 university students to assist in identifying and reaching out to individuals who may have been exposed to those testing positive for COVID-19.
The school’s contact tracing team was first formed in March with a core group of volunteers who have been supporting SNHD throughout the pandemic. While the first group of contact tracers were exclusively students from the School of Public Health, this grant has provided the opportunity for UNLV students across several disciplines to also participate. So far, 60 students have been trained through the grant and more are currently undergoing training by a team of experienced graduate students.
“Applying what they have learned in the classroom and through training, our students are now at the forefront of COVID-19 prevention efforts in the community,” said Shawn Gerstenberger, dean of the UNLV School of Public Health. “We’re now able to provide our students with another chance to gain relevant, first-hand experience in public health while serving the community during this critical time.”
If an individual tests positive for COVID-19, a contact tracer interviews them to identify others who may have been in recent contact with that person. They ask contacts about any symptoms experienced while advising on testing and quarantine protocols.
More than 1,100 students answered the call to become a contact tracer, and these applicants will soon help to fill the remaining open positions. The current group of hired contact tracers speak 16 different languages and reflect the diversity of UNLV’s student body and the greater community.
To qualify, interested students are first required to take an initial training course. Once selected, they learn the contact tracing system and spend time making calls under supervision at UNLV. When the training is complete, students are provided with a laptop to perform their duties remotely.
“Contact tracing is a vital part of monitoring and controlling the spread of infectious diseases, and our students are playing a key role in the process and potentially saving lives,” said Brian Labus, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNLV School of Public Health and a member of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 task force. Labus serves as the principal investigator of the grant. “By increasing the number of contact tracers, we can decrease the impact of the virus. We can more efficiently and quickly identify those who may have been exposed and infected.”