A University of Houston student begins the 12-hour COVID-19 contact tracing course. (Courtesy photo)
A University of Houston student begins the 12-hour COVID-19 contact tracing course. (Courtesy photo)

University of Houston debuts contact tracing course amid COVID-19 crisis

Comprehensive, 12-hour program is available online for UH students, faculty and staff and will soon expand to the general public

University of Houston debuts contact tracing course amid COVID-19 crisis

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As public health officials continue to track the spread of COVID-19, the University of Houston (UH) College of Medicine has launched a free online training course focused on contact tracing. The 12-hour, self-paced program, developed in collaboration with the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health, is open to UH students, faculty and staff, but a version of the course will soon be made available to the general public.

Contact tracing is the monitoring of individuals potentially exposed to an infectious disease; for COVID-19, that is the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), contact tracing is defined by three critical steps: contact identification, which includes identifying any and all individuals an infected person came into contact with since the onset of illness; contact listing, the period when contacts are informed of their possible exposure and given information about the disease as well as protocols to minimize further spread; and contact follow-up, which is defined as regular communication with all contacts for the purpose of monitoring for symptoms and testing for signs of infection.

“Contact tracing right now is a public health tool that is invaluable when we don’t have pharmaceuticals, we don’t have a vaccine, and we don’t have really effective treatments, although we know they’re on the horizon,” said program organizer Bettina Beech, MPH, DrPH. “Right now, testing and tracing are the twins that are going to move us forward in opening our economy successfully and safely.”

Beech, who is the associate provost for planning and strategic initiatives at UH and an associate dean for research at the College of Medicine, said their program is unique in its development in collaboration with both the city and county health departments and its specific focus on contact tracing in Texas.

“Johns Hopkins has their course on Coursera, and it’s fantastic, but we have a very Texas flavor to what we’ve created,” Beech said. “We are looking at a deep dive of issues that are related to Texans and that are unique in our region. … All contact tracing is local. You have to really understand local milieu and culture.”

The UH Epi Corps Contact Tracer Certificate Program is administered online through the Blackboard digital learning platform, which is why it is initially only offered to individuals connected to the University of Houston. The program is modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)‘s contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials‘ contact tracing training modules.

The UH course covers topics ranging from COVID-19 symptoms, basic epidemiology and medical terminology to communication and interviewing skills. One of the modules also focuses on ethical issues and special populations, addressing cultural sensitivity and regulatory adherence. UH-affiliated individuals who complete the course will receive a digital certificate and some may be eligible for credit hours.

Both the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health have created hundreds of jobs for contact tracers amid the pandemic. Beech said some individuals who completed the UH course have been hired in those roles. Both agencies also provided UH with position descriptions for volunteer contact tracers to share with individuals who go through the program, she said.

Zainab Diwan, a UH biochemistry undergraduate on a pre-health track, was one of the first students to complete the course and hopes to work as a COVID-19 contact tracer while she completes her studies.

“I initially became interested in the course because of the class I was taking, which talked about medicine and society, and we were learning a lot about the theories of it and how that works in public health. This was an opportunity to take what we were learning in school and apply it to real life,” Diwan said. “It teaches you how this course is effective right now, but it also tells you about COVID in general, what a pandemic is and how contact tracing can help not only with this situation with COVID-19, but also in cases that we’ve already seen before, like with tuberculosis.”

Beech said that she also hopes the course will appeal to individuals who had not considered careers related to health care prior to the global pandemic.

“We’re hoping to create folks in the future that are interested in careers in public health,” she said. “For students that didn’t really consider a career in public health, we’re hoping that the Epi Corps program really piques their interest to see just how important this area is.”

Already, more than 2,000 individuals from UH have enrolled and more than 800 have completed the course.

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