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COVID-19 has presented challenges that we never could have imagined. Social distancing, wearing masks, and weekly pooled saliva testing have become as familiar to the campus community as late-night visits to the library.

This semester, nine SUNY Potsdam students have embraced the challenge, and are giving back to the campus community as part of a new internship to meet the demands of the global pandemic—answering the call as newly appointed contact tracers for the College.

From left, Arantxa Valdez ’23, Chris Alexander ’24, and Keira Thacker ’21 are part of the nine-member student contact tracing team working on campus this semester.

“I want to be a doctor, and I saw all these healthcare professionals on Instagram telling their stories during the pandemic,” said Arantxa Valdez ’23, a biology major with aspirations to enter medical school after graduating from SUNY Potsdam. “I said, ‘I’m a student and I want to volunteer, to help in any way that I can.’ This is an amazing opportunity to help my campus, the place where I live, and also gain some experience that will help me in the future.”

With the global pandemic leading to increased demands on SUNY Potsdam’s Student Health Services staff, a plan was devised to alleviate their workload. What unfolded was a merging of minds, as Tanya Hewitt, chair for the Department of Public Health and Human Performance, collaborated with departments all over campus to launch a new internship experience for students.

“Tracy Harcourt, director of Student Health Services, has provided invaluable input with structure and overall shaping of how this will look for students,” said Hewitt. “These students quickly answered the call. They come from a variety of different majors and backgrounds, but what struck me the most, when asked why they wanted to serve in this capacity, each and every one of them mentioned that they wanted to help.  I think that speaks to our students’ drive, maturity and desire to be partners in keeping our campus safe and healthy.”

At the end of February, students completed the required Johns Hopkins University training program that highlights important concepts for contact tracing—everything from an overview of COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2, to learning the steps for investigating cases and tracing contacts. A separate workshop with the nurses in SHS provided them with additional information about SUNY Potsdam’s procedures for testing and contact tracing. “The students have been an immense help with contact tracing, and I feel privileged to be working with these impressive individuals,” said Harcourt. “It is a difficult job, and they are handling it with professionalism.”

As students, faculty and staff complete pooled saliva testing every Monday, the test tubes are collected and sent to Upstate Medical in Syracuse, with the results returning a few days later. Then the student contact tracers arrive for their shifts. “Calls actually take quite a while,” said Keira Thacker ’21. “The first call to someone who tests positive takes around a half hour or so—collecting all of their contacts, their names and phone numbers, where they’ve been—and then giving them all the information about the next step takes a while. I’ve noticed for people who live on campus too it’s especially hard, because they are going to get uprooted from their room and be moved to a quarantine dorm.”

“The students were interested in the experience and the impact this would have on their future professional life, but they were clearly focused on helping the campus and the greater community,” said Kathleen O’Rourke, a professor and site supervisor for the internship. “Their concern for stopping the spread was evident, as was their wish to support the students they would be contacting.”

Every Thursday and Friday, the students arrive at Student Health Services, and resume their scheduled shift, in the empty offices of Counseling Center staff who are working remotely. At the beginning of the semester, there weren’t many cases, but April ushered in a spike in numbers. “I made calls my entire shift here,” said Chris Alexander ’24, a biology major with plans to one day become a doctor. “I’ve been looking for experience hours for medical school. It’s been pretty awesome so far.”

The most valuable aspect of the internship for Alexander has been learning how to effectively communicate. “That’s a huge part of making those calls. You never know who you’ll get on the other end of the line. You could have someone who’s nice and cooperative, or someone who’s not having a great day, and not liking the news. Learning how to read that, and effectively communicate, is definitely the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of it,” he said.

For Valdez, the idea of becoming a contact tracer dates back to a year earlier. She had heard that New York State was seeking contact tracers, so she completed the Johns Hopkins University training in the summer of 2020. She hadn’t heard from the state yet, so she didn’t hesitate when the opportunity arose to work on campus. With her training certificate in hand, she was able to bypass some of the training. Now the junior is gaining real-world training as she completes her undergraduate degree and prepares for medical school.

“I love that I get to work with people like Tracy, Shae and Caroline in Student Health Services. They are so welcoming,” Valdez said. “People are asking you so many questions, and I’ve just been here for a couple weeks, so I call them for advice. I’m really grateful that I get to work with them, and also with the other contract tracers.”

Sitting across the hall from Valdez is her classmate and fellow contact tracer, Thacker. After she graduates in May, Thacker will be taking a gap year and applying for medical school. “This is really relatable to what I want to go into, so I’m grateful that the opportunity presented itself,” Thacker said. “Now that we’re living through a pandemic, this experience will be really important for me in the future from a public health angle and informing people how we prevent this from happening again.”

As cases ebb and flow on campus, Thacker, Alexander and Valdez are joined by Deasia Hargrove '23, Taylor Briggs '22, Zahria Paddyfoot '23, Samantha Gonnelly '21, Nicole Anais Ramirez '21, and Yaricuyay Moran '24 to quickly disseminate vital information to students at the College—all while gaining real-world training for their future careers. With their guidance, the spread of COVID-19 is continually kept in check.

Article and photos by Jason Hunter