As Contact Tracers, Wilson Institute Students Are Out Front in Pandemic Battle

Two Albion students from Chicago, Lucretia Woods, ’21, and Camari Jones, ’23, are interning at Howard Brown Health to help identify COVID-19 patients in their hometown and stem the tide of the disease.

June 17, 2020

By Chuck Carlson

Chicago residents Lucretia Woods, ’21, and Camari Jones, ’23, both students in Albion College’s Lisa and James Wilson Institute for Medicine, have found the kind of real-world, real-time, public health experience that can’t be found in a classroom.

Woods and Jones are working this summer as interns at Howard Brown Health, a primary-care facility with 10 locations throughout Chicago serving underrepresented minorities in general and especially the LGBTQ community.

Chicago native Lucretia Woods, ’21, a member of the Wilson Institute for Medicine. has been working this summer, along with Camari Jones, ’23, on contact tracing of COVID-19 patients in their hometown.

One of the students’ primary duties is contact tracing of those diagnosed with COVID-19 in an effort to slow the pandemic that has hit Chicago’s underrepresented community especially hard.

The internship was created with the coordination of Austin Baidas, ‘92, a Chicago native himself who is also treasurer of Howard Brown Health, and Dr. Brad Rabquer, Wilson Institute director and associate professor of biology.

“Howard Brown provides health care regardless of ability to pay, and we’ve made a conscious effort to expand into areas where there are large health disparities,” Baidas said.

When he saw the human-resource need created by the coronavirus, he thought of Rabquer and the Wilson Institute.

Answering the Call

In May an email went out from Rabquer gauging interest among Wilson Institute students, and Woods and Jones responded almost immediately.

“What Austin asked for is to follow the mission of Howard Brown with people from the community they serve doing the service,” Rabquer said. “They want community members empowered to make change and he wanted to know if we have Wilson students who are from Chicago—Black and Latino—who live in those communities. Camari and Cretia responded within an hour to that email.”

“I jumped at the opportunity,” said Woods, a biology major who hopes to have a career as a child delivery midwife in her Austin neighborhood of Chicago. “The Center is a seven-minute walk from my house and when you work in a clinic where you live, I think that builds trust in people.”

Jones, a psychology major, lives in Washington Park, a 10-minute walk from his nearest Howard Brown Center. He was looking for a summer opportunity to expand his skills in the medical field.

“It was a chance to get experience and to network,” he said. “I’m interested in seeing all sides of medicine, from emergency medicine to patient care and hospice. This internship was an opportunity to be around medical professionals and it’s an opportunity to network.”

For Baidas and the Center, it could not have worked out better and could lead to more Albion students in Howard Brown internships.

“It’s great to find two talented students like this to kick it off,” Baidas said.

Woods and Jones only recently began the arduous, time-consuming but vital job of contact tracing after completing an online workshop provided by Johns Hopkins University, one of the nation’s leaders in tracking the disease that has, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has killed more than 116,000 Americans and sickened 2.1 million to date.

Once a patient has been diagnosed at Howard Brown with COVID-19, the interns gather information about where that person has been, where they traveled and with whom they have had close contact. It’s not easy, but it remains one of the best ways available to find out how the disease has spread, where it has spread and who may get sick, Rabquer said.

“This is a contagious disease, so you follow up and check on everyone they’ve been in contact with,” he said. “Those folks can then undergo testing, they can undergo further isolation and quarantine. It’s a laborious job because you’re on the phone trying to contact people. You need a lot of folks to do it properly, but it’s a powerful tool to limit the spread. This is a horrible public health crisis and it’s something we’ll be dealing with for a long time. As educators, we need to help students think their way through this, be good leaders and have the passion to help.”

Making a Connection

For Jones and Woods, who are working remotely on the task, it has sometimes been an exercise in frustration.

“I expected people to be willing to converse with me, but oftentimes they don’t want to talk and are very hostile,” Jones said. “Two or three people have hung up on me right away and sometimes at the end of the survey you ask for their address and they don’t want to give it to you. But if you work with them and adapt to whatever person you’re talking to, you’ll be fine. I have a new way to approach the call and it makes them feel more comfortable.”

It’s been a similar experience for Woods, who has had to convince people she has called that she is not one of those ubiquitous telemarketers.

Austin Baidas, ’92 (right), is treasurer of Howard Brown Health in Chicago. He played an integral role in creating an internship for Albion College pre-med students in the battle against COVID-19.

“You start off with a casual voice and you have to reassure people,” she said. “You talk to immigrants who think it might be [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and they’re afraid they’re going to be taken away. You assure them that’s not us.”

The calls can last from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the information people are willing to provide. That information is then entered into the Network Canvas to provide health officials with a roadmap of the disease.

“Hopefully this helps us lower the number of COVID-19 cases,” Woods said. “Some people may not have even known they had COVID.”

Rabquer said this Chicago internship is part of a larger plan to have some 20 to 30 trained Wilson Institute students conduct contact tracing in Michigan, in conjunction with the Calhoun County Health Department, when campus is set to re-open in August for the fall semester.

“This is labor-intensive and our students are stepping in and helping,” Rabquer said. “We’re going to suddenly put 2,000 more people into the city in August and the county does not have the kind of manpower to absorb that. And we have students who are trained clinically to help.

“We see this as Albion’s overall public health initiative,” Rabquer continued. “They’re idealistic and passionate students, and we’re taking students who have that passion and connecting them with that opportunity and preparing them for a career in medicine.”