USC master’s students help L.A. County with COVID-19 contact tracing, vaccine surveys

Graduate students in Public Health and Social Work team up to help L.A. County with contact tracing and vaccination surveys.
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By Cristine Hall

The pandemic may have closed some doors to in-person opportunities for students, but it opened a big one for Merna Ghallab, who gained invaluable training as a COVID-19 contact tracing intern and team lead for Los Angeles County—all while working from her home 7,590 miles away in Cairo, Egypt.

“It was the perfect opportunity to challenge myself to speak with people and to step out of my shell,” said Ghallab, MPH, whose experience fulfilled the practicum requirement for her master’s degree in public health. When everything shut down, Ghallab’s family returned to Egypt. The remote nature of the contact tracing internship was ideal and worked with her new time zone. “It was an incredible experience to learn how to interact with people and their ideas, especially with a sensitive topic like COVID-19.”

Merna Ghallab
Merna Ghallab

Ghallab, who graduated last week, was part of an interdepartmental group of 24 students from USC’s Master of Public Health and Master of Social Work programs that provided roughly 3,000 hours of contact tracing services through an internship program at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. The students received training and worked 120 hours over the course of the semester, reaching out to individuals who had tested positive for COVID-19. The goal of contact tracing was to ensure that those infected understood how to quarantine and to ascertain who else might be at risk. Now, with more people getting vaccinated, interns are also conducting surveys about vaccine hesitancy.

USC student contact tracers from left to right: (Top) Jamenie Lazaro, Jane Steinberg, PhD, MPH, Director of Public Health Practice in the MPH Program, Dristi Angdembey, Theron Benson; (middle) Citlalin Lopez, Michelle Rojo, Noelle Pardo, Alllison Wallace; (bottom) Aqsah Choudhary, Kay McGarrell, Merna Ghallab.

USC’s approach was “unique—no other school has created an interdepartmental group—and it’s a strength for the university,” said Shieva Davarian, PhD, research analyst for the Division of Children’s Medical Services at Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “The students are great—sharp and quick. They were a tremendous help when many of our staff were reassigned to other roles, and now that more people are getting vaccinated, the interns are going back and asking about vaccine hesitancy in surveys.”

Headshot of Shieva Davarian, PhD
Shieva Davarian, PhD

Davarian, who earned her doctorate in gerontology from USC in 2013, launched the Case and Contact Interview Branch Contact Tracing Internship program in the fall of 2020 and serves as its primary program manager. Students receive 40 hours of training to learn about the history of the department and contact tracing, as well as how to take care of customers and their own mental health. They are also provided with scripts to complement what they learn about the virus and how it works.

Jane Steinberg, PhD, MPH
Jane Steinberg, PhD, MPH

“When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and find alternative practicum opportunities for our students,” said Jane Steinberg, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor and Director of Public Health Practice for the MPH Program in the department of preventive medicine. “Contact tracing gave our students incredible real-world experience, and we are so proud of establishing this relationship with the School of Social Work.”

In a typical day, work would start at 8 a.m. Pacific time. Because Cairo is nine hours ahead, Ghallab would go to her desk in her home office in time to start work at 6 p.m. On days when she was a team lead, she would receive cases to assign to her team through a contact tracing platform, host a kick-off call with her team to share updated protocols, scripts and general news, and close the day with a team debriefing meeting before clocking out at 2:30 a.m. On days when she worked as a contact tracer, she would use the online portal to make phone calls to clients.

Sometimes, students would encounter resistance from clients and even outright anger. Ghallab remembers an extreme reaction from a man who said he didn’t believe in COVID-19 and thought it was completely fabricated. Others shared hesitancy about getting vaccinated.

Daniel Yepez sits in front of his computer
Daniel Yepez

Like Ghallab, Daniel Yepez, a second-year MPH student with a concentration in biostatistics-epidemiology, also worked as both a contact tracer and team leader on Fridays and Saturdays. Talking with people about their COVID-19 diagnoses ran the gamut from lively to straightforward and serious to deeply emotional.

“It’s so delicate when you’re performing these interviews because you’re there to inform them of a positive COVID test result,” Yepez said. “We have to remember that each data point is a human, and there’s a life behind that. That’s the fundamental meaning to the word ‘public’ in public health.”