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August 18, 2020

SVSU launches contact tracer program on eve of fall semester; local health care agencies provide support

When Moregan LaMarr recently began her role as a contact tracer searching for potential cases of COVID-19 at Saginaw Valley State University, she was motivated by her determination to provide a strong support system and sympathetic ear to a community she knows well. LaMarr, after all, is a two-time SVSU graduate, having earned her master’s degree in social work only last year.
 
“I know how they must feel,” LaMarr said. “These are students who are trying to have a normal college experience and yet still figure out how to be safe and take care of their mental health as well. We are going to help them with that.”
 
“We” refers to the freshly-established SVSU contact tracing team. It’s a group tasked in part with identifying and supporting confirmed or probable positive COVID-19 cases among the students, faculty and staff that will return for in-classroom instruction Aug. 31 at SVSU. Their work also involves contacting and supporting others on campus who may have been exposed to those individuals.
 
LaMarr serves as one of the group’s leaders who was hired through a partnership with regional health care organizations. She works as a case manager and social worker with Saginaw Community Mental Health, although much of her work supporting ailing individuals happens at the Covenant HealthCare Emergency Care Center. In addition to earning her master’s degree at SVSU in 2019, she received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the university two years earlier.
 
She leads the group alongside Julie Newton, an infection control practitioner with MidMichigan Health and a member of the Michigan Society of Infected Prevention and Control. The two are supported by SVSU staff and faculty as well as a team of 36 students chosen to serve as NEST ambassadors for the university’s comprehensive program (known as the Cardinal NEST Plan, an acronym for "New Expectations for a Safer Tomorrow") aimed at promoting a safe return to college for the SVSU campus community. SVSU secured private donations from alumni, local foundations, and others to support the student positions.
 
Students largely begin moving into residential halls Monday, Aug. 24. Seven days later, in-classroom instruction resumes on campus for the first time since SVSU transitioned to online and remote learning in March.
 
Although her experience at SVSU marks the first time LaMarr has served as a contact tracer, she is utilizing years of experience in crisis management while working as a case manager and social worker.
 
Newton has worked as a contact tracer for MidMichigan Health since before COVID-19 arrived in America. Over the course of a decade, her job in part involved tracing the spread of illnesses such as influenza and Hepatitis A among patients as well as health care staff exposed to those patients in the region.
 
“SVSU is a community in itself, and that community impacts the surrounding area,” Newton said. “By keeping the campus safe, it’s helping the whole community stay safe. Also, you want students to have the experience of being on a college campus, and keeping them healthy is very important.”
 
The students working with LaMarr and Newton eventually will serve as contact tracers. A number of those students recently received training in the work through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; the rest of the group will complete the training, as well.
 
During the first weeks of the upcoming fall semester, those students will be tasked with engaging with their peers on campus in an effort to “change the culture” of how individuals view dealing with illness. Andrea Frederick, SVSU associate professor of nursing and one of the faculty members assisting the newly-established group, said changing that culture will be key to the contact tracing program’s success.
 
“The American ethic is that, ‘If I’m sick, I’m strong enough and can push through it to go to school,’ but we need to change that when it comes to this virus,” Frederick said. “It has to be OK to stay home if you are sick and it has to be OK to admit if you made a mistake and may have exposed others. We have to be OK with being honest about that.”
 
Also key to the contact tracing is the technological infrastructure built to support it.
 
The contact tracing process begins with an app, CampusClear; SVSU students, staff and faculty must self-report their health status prior to entering campus, using the app. When the report indicates an individual experienced an unexplained symptom associated with COVID-19 or experienced close contact with a confirmed or probable case, that individual will be prompted to call a Covenant HealthCare-operated hotline. Based on an assessment made during that phone call, suspected cases would be forwarded to SVSU’s contact tracing team.
 
The campus community member then would be contacted by a member of the contact tracing group for support and direction. If the individual tested positive for COVID-19, contact tracers would initiate the identification of others who were potentially exposed to the virus.
 
“There’s a nuance to contact tracing,” Frederick said. “If you discover that you have the virus and you went to your history class yesterday, the contact tracer would want to determine if everyone was wearing a mask and maintaining 6 feet of social distance. When people are following the proper safety protocols, the risk of transmission is quite low.”
 
Contact tracers also will be empowered to provide their contacts with resources, ranging from health care-related phone numbers to much-needed supplies.
 
“For instance, we want to make sure that someone in quarantine or isolation has enough food in the refrigerator,” Frederick said.
 
LaMarr said she and her team will also provide emotional support for those in need.
 
“We understand how scary those situations can be, and we want to let every student know we’re in this together,” she said. “I will want them to know they’re not alone. I know I would want that.”