University of Limerick students hoping to ‘make a difference’ through contact tracing

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Volunteers: Conor Clancy from Monaleen in Limerick and Aubree Worobetz, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, second year medical students at the UL Graduate Entry Medical School, who live in the same house, pictured working on the virtual contact tracing.

UNIVERSITY of Limerick (UL) students involved in contact tracing in the fight against COVID-19 have said that “the lists are long” but they are hoping to “make a difference”.

The University, in partnership with the HSE, has set up the UL Virtual Hub with over 50 senior health sciences students trained to engage in contact tracing, students make calls to inform people they have tested positive, as well as providing health advice.

The virtual contact tracing hub is managed by UL staff who also provide technical support and advice has seen a further 270 students and staff sign up to volunteer.

70 staff from Revenue, who were trained in UL, are responsible for follow-up calls to identify contacts of the person who has tested positive.

Professor Rachel Msetfi, Executive Dean, Faculty of Education and Health Sciences at UL said she is “incredibly proud” of staff and students involved in setting up and training at the virtual hub “whilst continuing with their other work”.

“Contact tracing is an incredibly important part of reducing transmission rates,” she said, adding, “When someone tests positive they receive several phone calls, one is to inform them that they are positive, provide advice on the steps they need to take, and so forth, recognising that the person they are calling might be very upset and anxious as a result of this news.”

Professor Msetfi noted UL staff are managing all of the operation “assigning the volunteers to particular roles and monitoring the contact tracing activity, answering the queries, and so forth”.

“They have also set up a virtual hub to allow all of this activity and are liaising closely with the HSE,” she added.

The UL student volunteers are currently carrying out up to 70 calls a day to those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Two of those volunteers, second-year medical students at the UL Graduate Entry Medical School, Conor Clancy from Monaleen in Limerick and Aubree Worobetz, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, spoke about their experience of the contact tracing so far and how they are glad to be contributing “in any way possible”.

Mr Clancy said he wanted to put his skills and course experience to use “to help my community”.

“We are not yet ready for hands-on action at medical facilities but I feel that by helping with tracing, I can support those who are and help prevent people from getting sick,” said Conor Clancy.

He noted callers are getting through “a good volume of calls every day” and that management from UL and HSE staff provides “good support”.

He said, “In that sense, it is filling a purpose, but the lists are still long and we are obviously hoping to have less calls to make in the coming weeks as social distancing procedures start to show results.

Volunteers: Conor Clancy from Monaleen in Limerick and Aubree Worobetz, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, second year medical students at the UL Graduate Entry Medical School, who live in the same house, pictured working on the virtual contact tracing.

“The responses have been better than expected for me. Most people are well aware of the self-quarantine and/or isolation protocols and are responsibly at home and being looked after.”

The medical student said the worrying number is that of “healthcare workers on the list”.

He said, “I have a brother and mother working as front line healthcare workers so I am hoping they continue to be safe. I hope that by doing this small bit of work I can help make sure they and other people like them are safe.

“Sometimes people are happy to get the information, some are even glad just to have a chat from being stuck at home. Luckily, my calls have been people who are well or have mild symptoms and the news has so far not come as too much of a shock.”

Aubree Worobetz said she volunteered because “a lot of friends and family – both in Limerick and Canada – are essential workers in healthcare and the community. When the email came looking for medical students to volunteer it felt natural to volunteer and contribute in any way possible.

“A major part of our role is informing individuals that they have COVID-19. It is impressive how many people take their own initiative to self-isolate even before receiving the phone call saying they have tested positive. It is that type of proactivity that truly helps stop the spread of this virus.”

Ms Worobetz said after receiving the call many people are “relieved” to finally have some information “are eager to know what they need to do next”.

She said, “People often want to talk and share stories of their life and how it has changed from this pandemic. Sometimes they bring up the struggles of managing both family and work from home. It is evident everyone has their own challenges through all this – sometimes it’s the few minutes of conversation that really puts people at ease during the phone calls we make.”

Asked what it was like to be playing a role in the fight against COVID-19, Conor said, “It is nice to be able to do something positive to help, but it still feels very surreal to be doing it from lock-down at home.”

By working remotely, Conor says it is “difficult to see the impact” of the work being done.

“But we have a good team of callers from UL who are helping each other out,” he said, “Like everyone else, we are just waiting to see.

“I’m still new to a lot of the skills needed for practicing medicine, so it is challenging and I am not yet fully comfortable delivering bad news on the phone. But we are learning as we go along and hopefully making a difference.”

Aubree added: “It is difficult to see the impact, but it feels good to be playing a supportive role in this crisis. I think we all saw the same thing in this opportunity – a chance to support our community.”