On the third floor of Drachman Hall on the University of Arizona Health Sciences campus, the Poison Control Center is buzzing with activity, with around a dozen stations helmed by busy pharmacists and Health Sciences students. Large monitors display maps of the spread of COVID-19 across the world — and its emerging encroachment into Arizona.
Across town, at a fire station near the Rillito River, Health Sciences faculty oversee a film production. A man pretends to cough as firefighters strap him into a gurney and wheel him into a paramedic truck, all the while modeling how first responders can protect themselves from infectious diseases.
The Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health is taking calls and reaching out to the public to spread health information far and wide. Its response to the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is the most recent example of the College’s community-focused work.
Kristen Pogreba-Brown, PhD, MPH, is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Through a course she developed called Student Aid for Field Epidemiology Response (SAFER), she trains students to work in a campus call center assisting health departments with disease outbreaks. Under normal circumstances, students conduct detailed surveys to figure out how Arizonans with food poisoning were exposed to pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter.
But sometimes, SAFER students’ skills are tested by headline-grabbing epidemics. This year, SAFER students are providing “surge capacity” for overwhelmed health departments, who in addition to their regular work are inundated with calls from the worried public about COVID-19.
“Having public health students answer those questions is a good fit,” Dr. Pogreba-Brown said. “We had everything in place to take those calls, especially from 5 to 8 p.m. when the health department should go home, because they have really long days.”
Dr. Pogreba-Brown also has enlisted current and former SAFER students, as well as other public health students, to assist the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, commonly known as Poison Control, which has been swamped with questions from callers worried about COVID-19. After sending out an email asking students to volunteer for shifts, a dozen slots were filled in just a few hours.
Briggs Carhart, a Master of Public Health student concentrating on epidemiology, was one of the first to respond to Dr. Pogreba-Brown’s request for volunteers. The next day, he was trained on the phone system and taking calls.
“There are pharmacists on the phone with people asking questions about COVID-19, while they’re waiting for calls about rattlesnake bites or infants accidentally swallowing medication,” Carhart said. “My duty is to take my training and use it in a real-life scenario.”
Carhart says students were given a script to provide guidance in answering common questions, but he didn’t limit himself to reading from it verbatim.
“We want people to be prepared but not panicked.”
Kristen Pogreba-Brown, PhD, MPH, assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
“You’re talking to people who are worried, so sounding like a robot isn’t the best approach,” Carhart said. “I was getting on their level, calming them down, allowing them to vent their concerns. I was able to give them some reassurance and some answers. That way, we’re providing a service, rather than making them worry more.”
Dr. Pogreba-Brown agrees. “What we’re trying to do at this point is quell people’s fears, and make sure they understand they don’t have to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper or every single bottle of hand sanitizer,” she said. “We want people to be prepared but not panicked.”
Preparing first responders
The College of Public Health’s faculty is also active in reaching out to the community. Kelly Reynolds, PhD, chair of the Department of Community, Environment, and Policy, and director of the Environment, Exposure Science, and Risk Assessment Center (ESRAC), is working with doctoral student Amanda Wilson, the Tucson Fire Department, plus Erich Healy and other personnel from the Western Regional Public Health Training Center to create a training video for firefighters and EMS responders.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Reynolds accompanied a videographer to the fire station and watched as firefighters demonstrated for the camera how to protect themselves when treating a patient exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Jonathan Sexton, PhD, ESRAC research specialist, played the role of a coughing patient, while the firefighters donned protective gear, put a barrier between the patient and the gurney, and carried out proper decontamination procedures afterward.
“The coronavirus caused fear and uncertainty about what best practice looks like,” Dr. Reynolds said. “The Tucson Fire Department contacted us to develop the video, to refresh our first responders about the importance of infection control protocols and make sure they’re doing things properly.”
Even when there aren’t outbreaks to worry about, first responders always need to be cognizant of germs to keep their patients — and themselves — healthy. COVID-19 offered a timely justification for a refresher course.
“You can pull out COVID-19, you can put in H1N1. You could pull out H1N1, and you could put in other ones — meningitis, tuberculosis. We treat them all the same way,” said Tucson Fire Health and Safety Captain John Gulotta, who sees the training as another opportunity to ensure firefighters stay educated. “We rely on the University of Arizona Health Sciences for help on how to reduce exposure, how to reduce contamination, and how to reduce germs getting into our station or our living space.”
Dr. Reynolds’ partnership with Tucson Fire goes back a decade, when the department was experiencing a spike of MRSA infections. After Dr. Reynolds and her team helped the fire department incorporate infection control protocols into their day-to-day operations, MRSA cases dropped to zero, down from 19 cases in three years.
“We’re continuing to be a resource for them for any of their questions about preventing exposure to microbes,” Dr. Reynolds said. “This has been a team effort — we all rallied together in a community effort to stop these kinds of events from getting worse.”
The Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health isn’t big enough to hold its students and faculty within its walls. People who enter public health want to make a tangible difference in their communities — and that includes reaching out to the public to spread health information far and wide.