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UC Irvine workshop trains residents living, working in COVID-19 ‘hot spots’ to do contact tracing

A sign that reads "University of California, Irvine"
UC Irvine has partnered with health officials and advocacy groups to teach community members how to conduct contact tracing in the neighborhoods where they live and work.
(Steve Zylius / UC Irvine)

An important line of defense against the coronavirus lies in contact tracing, tracking the steps of an infected individual and reaching out to others who may have been exposed with advice on testing, self-quarantine and available resources.

Training contact tracers to perform the grueling work that exists in Orange County has been an uphill battle. On Thursday, healthcare officials reported another 348 new cases, bringing the county’s total to 42,171.

Though many more have been trained, Orange County Health Care Agency officials confirmed Thursday the agency has just 185 staff members dedicated to tracking coronavirus cases.

In low-income areas and communities of color such as Santa Ana and Anaheim — where rates of infection are 20 times higher than the countywide average — the challenges of contact tracing can also be exponentially higher.

The same barriers that prevent residents from accessing health information and services can also make it more difficult for tracers to connect with contacts who may be leery of providing information on their whereabouts and associations to a government agency.

To help break down those barriers, while increasing the number of potential contact tracers working directly in communities most impacted by COVID-19, UC Irvine has partnered with the Orange County Health Care Agency and local health advocacy groups to teach community members how to conduct contact tracing in the neighborhoods where they live and work.

A four-week health equity contact-tracing workshop held its first virtual meeting on July 20 for more than 450 attendees. Organizers shared the goals and scope of the project in English and Spanish.

“Nothing will stop this pandemic better than an informed and resourced and unified community,” said UCI Dean of Public health Bernadette Boden-Albala during introductory remarks. “We want to give participants, all of you, an opportunity to see yourselves as part of the larger community effort and to clarify your unique purpose within that effort.”

The dean’s audience comprised community activists, UCI students, healthcare workers and concerned citizens who’d signed up to be trainees and facilitators.

Among them was David Carbajal, a care coordinator for a Santa Ana community health center. The 27-year-old Santa Ana resident is leading a cohort of about a dozen Spanish-speaking participants who live in the area he believes are ideally suited for the difficult work of contact tracing.

“There is no one better to do this work than those who are living in the trenches of this,” Carbajal said in an interview Thursday. “They understand the need — it is so real to them because it’s something they’re living themselves.”

Now in the third week of the program, participants have been engaging in about eight hours each week of synchronous interactive group sessions as well as individual study that tests them on key principles before moving to the next module.

Daniel Parker, a UCI assistant professor of public health who helped design the curriculum said the workshop begins with a discussion on health equity and how and why certain health disparities exist.

It then provides a look at the basic health science behind the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, before moving onto the mechanics of contact tracing.

Deep conversations, break-out sessions and role-playing exercises are a key part of the coursework, according to Parker.

“The best approach to this was to educate people from the community and give them the tools to do this,” he said of the workshop.

“These communities may be worried about government officials coming in and surveying,” he continued. “[But] if you’re from a place, a neighborhood, you already have something in common with the people you’re talking to and it’s easier for them to be more open to you.”

When the workshop has ended, students who participated in both the self-study and the synchronous group learning will receive a certificate acknowledging their training. The hope, Parker said, is that the knowledge will make them marketable job candidates for contact-tracing positions.

For Giomarell Feliciano, a 34-year-old resident of Redlands who earned his medical degree in the Dominican Republic and plans to seek a master’s in public health and nutrition from Loma Linda University in the fall, the information he’s learning in the workshop is reward enough.

“The knowledge we’re all getting is going to help us on a bigger scale and in our communities,” he said. “Even if you don’t get a job doing [contact tracing] you can still do your part in the community where you are.”

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