It was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of March when the Faculty of Medicine at UBC informed its med students that they were being pulled from their clinical duties. All of a sudden, a huge number of students had an enormous amount of free time on their hands—and many of them wanted to find a way to use that time to help combat the spread of COVID-19.
Zach Sagorin and Devon Mitchell were among those who wanted to find a way to use their skills and experience to contribute, so, along with a small group of peers who had come together organically, they formed a steering committee that could serve as a central hub to connect med students with potential opportunities. “We created a form for physicians to request their own specific support needs, and a form for public health initiatives,” says Zach. “It turned out that there was a wide number of different opportunities for our volunteers to be involved in.”
Since then, the program has grown remarkably; over 700 medical students signed up to volunteer and over 500 have contributed to a physician support activity or public health initiative. “I was surprised by the involvement and interest from various healthcare fields – from midwifery, to dentistry, to nursing, and more.” And that diversity of needs has been met by a surprising diverse set of skills on the part of med students. “What has been really interesting is the breadth of work and skills that people come into medical school possessing,” Devon says. “Everything from AI experts, to MDs and PhDs doing research work—everyone is bringing a wide range of talents to the table.”
One of the organizations that contacted the initiative was the Fraser Health Authority—they needed help with contact tracing of health authority employees across BC who had been exposed to the virus. The steering committee immediately connected them with Nora Penty, a 3rd-year medical student at UBC. She started right away that night, working through a list of med students who were interested in contact tracing to see who might be able to help. “The response was great, tons of med students wanted to get involved. We started off with a group of 17 students, and they were really happy to have us there to support them.”
The student group was trained by occupational health nurses. Says Nora: “For most of us, this has been our first experience working with occupational health nurses, and they’ve been wonderful—we’ve learned a lot about workplace health and communicable disease.” Medical students, it turns out, are a great fit to take on the complex task of contact tracing. “Not only has their time in a hospital setting made them familiar with the processes and people, but they also have an innate curiosity about COVID specifically and the healthcare system generally.”
Contact tracing might seem simple, conceptually, but it can be very complicated – and time-consuming – to execute. At the Provincial Workplace Health Call Centre, run by Fraser Health Authority, notifications are received from the public health unit or infection control—they can be anything from a full name to initials of a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19. Once the patient is identified, their movements are tracked through every unit in the hospital they’ve visited, and the managers of each unit are then asked to provide a list of staff who were present at the same time as those patients. Those staff members are then contacted directly to determine whether they interacted with that particular patient, and, if so, what kind of protective equipment they were wearing—all of this to figure out whether or not they need to be tested, and whether or not it’s safe for them to continue to work. Conversely, if a staff member is infected, the contact tracing works backwards, from the shifts they worked and who they worked with, to determine whether other healthcare workers are at risk.
"In the beginning there were quite a few incidents that we were concerned about that required a lot of calls,” Nora explains, ”but as a team we were able to make our way through all the data, track down all the people, and, perhaps most importantly, lessen the burden on the occupational health nurses so that they were able to get back to the essential work they were doing pre-COVID.” When the student volunteers started, Fraser Health was facing more than a thousand unanswered voicemails. And now? Zero. “We’re now able to answer these messages right away and give people immediate reassurance.”
And as the parameters of the global pandemic continue to evolve in new and unexpected ways, what might an initiative like this mean for the future? Zach is quick to point out that “when we talk about COVID being ‘over’, the truth is it won't be ‘over’ everywhere or for everyone—not for a long time.” But the experience has shown everyone involved that, when it matters, people are able to mobilize quickly and collaborate effectively. "It is great to know that we can bring together a student team and get them mobilized quickly if we should ever face another crisis like this.”
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