Community colleges throughout the country are creating contact tracing courses to meet the urgent demand for trained people able to track COVID-19 infections and thus slow the spread of the disease.
States and localities in the U.S. need at least 100,000 contact tracers “to meaningfully control transmission of the virus as states continue to lift social distancing restrictions,” according to the American Medical Association. Before the pandemic, that nation has just 2,200.
Contact tracers follow up with people in the community who tested positive for COVID or might have been exposed. They explain how to quarantine and identify who infected people have been in contact with, says Maribel Alimboyoguen, assistant dean of health careers at Oakton Community College in Illinois.
Oakton launched an online noncredit program in April to address the immediate need for contact tracers and began planning something more long term. About 500 students enrolled in the course in the spring, with more than 1,000 on a waiting list, says Oakton spokesperson Steve Butera.
This fall, the college is replacing the noncredit program with a 13-credit Public Health Contact Tracer Certificate program. Classes will start on October 20.
Among the many other community colleges with contact tracing programs are Calhoun Community College (Alabama); Community College of Baltimore County (Maryland); Clark State Community College (Ohio); HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College; Harper College (Illinois); Moraine Valley Community College (Illinois); Prince George’s Community College (Maryland); Portland Community College (Oregon); and Salt Lake Community College (Utah).
A path to a healthcare career
The program at Oakton is for individuals looking for entry-level positions or public health workers who want to become resource coordinators or case investigators. Students take four classes in health contact tracing, two classes in computer and database skills, and one class in interviewing techniques.
Those who complete the program can get jobs at state or local health departments or private organizations contracted by public agencies.
“Contact tracing is not a new thing,” Alimboyoguen says. “There is an immediate now, but this is something that is going to continue.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic ends, there will still be a need for contact tracers as other infectious diseases take prominence.
All workforce programs at Oakton require input from industry, so advisors from hospitals and health departments helped the college develop the program. The curriculum covers counseling, interviewing skills and cultural competency, as well as technical skills.
One challenge for students is the need for basic computer and internet literacy, as the courses are all online, Alimboyoguen says. A challenge for the college is bilingual contact tracers to serve the community’s large Spanish-speaking population.
In developing its noncredit, four-week contract tracer program, Illinois’ College of DuPage (COD) staff researched the CDC guidelines and training recommendations, says Debbie Hasse, senior program manager in the continuing education department.
Staff met with the college’s health and nursing faculty, and collaborated with the DuPage County Health Department and the Illinois Department of Public Health, Hasse says. As a result of those conversations, the COD program incorporates communications and other soft skills in the curriculum and privacy issues.
The class filled in less than 24 hours after registration opened. Since the program started, about 350 to 375 students have taken the course.
Students range from age 18 to the 70s, including people interested in a healthcare career, to retired people who want to help their community during the pandemic. About 10% to 15% of the students are from other states, including California, Massachusetts and Indiana.
Working through scenarios
The course is remote, but it is interactive.
“We purposely didn’t want a self-paced program,” says Lori Garcia, program manager in continuing education. “We wanted active engagement between students and faculty so we can focus on soft skills.”
Students are given sample telephone scripts for their first contact with an individual possibly infected with COVID. There are scripts for follow-up calls and other scenarios. For the final exam, students record and submit a pretend interview with a client.
“Our timing was perfect. By the time our local health agency started contact tracing, they hired several of our students who completed the course,” Garcia says. The program will continue as long as there is demand.
Because contact tracing is done over the phone, students have been hired across Illinois and agencies in other states.
The program was approved for funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Hasse notes. COD also provided scholarships for two students, one from the COD Foundation and one funded by the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation.
In California, staff at Bakersfield College started developing an online one-week class called Infections Disease Contact Tracing in February and got it approved in record time, says Charles Daramola, director of public health science.
Since the first course was launched in July, the college added several sessions. About 200 people completed the program so far. A new course will start this month. Those who complete the program earn one credit.
The college marketed the program to people in the community as well as Bakersfield College students. Contact tracing is done over the phone, so people can do it from home and set their own hours.
The course starts with a basic introduction to public health and covers information about COVID, terminology, communication and motivational interviewing. “It’s intense; there is a lot of reading,” Daramola says.
As the program evolved, faculty added more videos and more interactive content.
“Effective communication and interviewing take a lot of persistence and sensitivity,” Daramola says. Students learn how to “come alongside their contact and gently prod them” to provide information without embarrassing or blaming them.
Demand for the course remains high, as rural areas in Kern County had a surge in COVID cases during the summer, and cases are only now starting to slowly diminish.
Triton College in Illinois is in its fifth cohort of contact-tracing courses since the program began in June, says Belkis Torres-Capeles, dean of continuing education. About 300 students have enrolled so far, and the college has received more than 800 inquiries about the program. Those who complete the online course receive a certificate of attendance but do not earn credits.
Students include a mix of healthcare workers, people working in other fields, and those concerned about their families or interested in serving their community.
The curriculum is based on guidelines from the CDC, but the instructor added a component on “motivational interviewing,” Torres-Capeles says. That is similar to a consultative approach, she explains, where students learn how to ask probing questions.
“It’s about building relationships and rapport to help people answer questions and feel comfortable,” she says.
Triton is a designated Hispanic-serving institution, and the training is geared to the diverse population in the community.
“Our courses are tweaked as we go,” Torres-Capeles says. “We added a cultural component to the training so students understand how people from different cultures express themselves. We train interviewers to help people understand this is about the greater society.”
The training also covers privacy issues and how to deal with the stigma of contracting COVID. And because some people in the community don’t have phones, students are trained to approach contacts door-to-door if necessary.
A mix of students
When the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pennsylvania started planning a contact-tracing program, “we talked to people in the healthcare field and sought opinions on what skills they need,” says Debra Killmeyer, vice president of workforce development.
The college launched a 45-hour course leading to a noncredit certificate last spring. More than 120 students completed the program so far. CCAC is getting ready to start its seventh cohort.
The program was built on the core competencies recommended by the CDC, says instructor Rebecca Harmon.
Classes are conducted on Zoom. Sessions cover what to when a tracer can’t reach a contact, how to deal with challenges, and practice conversations among students. If contacts say COVID is a hoax or start talking about politics, students are advised to avoid an argument and refer the contact to a supervisor.
While the program doesn’t lead to a degree, it does allow students to put together a portfolio of completed work and certifications they can take to a job interview, Harmon says.
As a result, Killmeyer notes, the course could appeal to someone “who wants to dip their foot into learning another healthcare field.”