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Tracing COVID-19

Friday, July 3, 2020
Isabella Rizzo '21 contact tracing

Trinity student volunteers with San Antonio Metro Health District as a contact tracer

by Madison Semro '21

In March, Isabella Rizzo ’21 was managing the stress of Trinity’s campus shutdown when an email from biology professor Jim Shinkle appeared in her inbox. Shinkle was searching for students to volunteer with the San Antonio Metro Health District. Instantly, Rizzo felt compelled to help.

“I felt like it was a way to make myself useful during [the pandemic] and do what I could,” Rizzo says. “Something else to feel at least like I'm doing something and not just watching all of this happen. I'm not qualified to do most things, but, with this, that's what I feel like I could give.”

Rizzo, a biology and Spanish double major from Austin, Texas, is one of many volunteers working with the San Antonio Metro Health District. Rizzo is volunteering alongside fellow Trinity students Madeline Chaput ’21 and Lindsey Peng ’21 as a contact tracer. Contact tracing is vital to controlling and minimizing the COVID-19 outbreak, but it requires a large team to be done successfully. 

two students in metro health office

Contact tracers track the spread of COVID-19 by interviewing each patient infected with the disease. Once a patient’s COVID-19 test receives a positive result, the patient’s contact information is sent to the Metro Health District. Contract tracers, such as Rizzo, then reach out to the patient, working primarily to get a list of people who may have been infected as well as determine how the virus was transmitted.

Rizzo asks the patient questions that pertain to the progression of the infection as well as the people whom the patient may have exposed to COVID-19. Other volunteers at the Metro Health District then reach out to the patient’s contacts to notify them of their possible exposure to COVID-19 and suggest that they self-quarantine for two weeks while closely monitoring their symptoms. After 14 days, the contact tracers follow up with the initial patients to check on them and their symptoms.

In addition to valuable first-hand experience with a pandemic, Rizzo’s volunteer work has provided her an unexpected opportunity to practice her Spanish skills. At times, Rizzo is the only one in the office who speaks Spanish and therefore interviews some patients entirely in the language. “I liked being able to practice my Spanish and be useful in some way–that skill has been able to help someone,” Rizzo says.

This experience has also been surprisingly emotional for Rizzo. “I am also seeing how ridiculously underfunded public health is,” Rizzo says. Often, she has watched as her coworkers break down into stress-induced tears while at work due to being short-staffed and lacking resources.

However, stress is not the only emotional aspect of Rizzo’s job. “With each person you're talking to, this is their whole life you're getting into with them,” Rizzo explains. “Sometimes they're having symptoms and they've tested positive and they're doing okay, they're just at home. But there are other cases...I had one guy ask me if he was going to die. I wasn’t expecting to answer that question.”

After classes ended in May, the Metro Health District put out another call for volunteers as COVID-19 cases began to increase. Rizzo returned to San Antonio for a weekend to volunteer, but then the Metro Health District offered her a full-time job. Rizzo says, “It's opened up some doors, so that's pretty exciting!” She plans to spend the rest of the summer working for Metro Health District as a contact tracer, in addition to taking on some duties in their other departments.

In the current quick-changing environment, the Metro Health District can only do their best to keep up. Rizzo observes, “This whole experience has made me see how human everything really is. We can only prepare for the unexpected, but it's not really until it happens that you can figure out how to go about handling it the best way. And we're still doing that, I feel.”

Rizzo has also seen humanity not only in preparation and execution but also in support for one another. “I think it's nice to see if there is a huge threat, something like the pandemic, that people are more likely to come together and help than not [and] look for ways to support each other...A lot of our lives have changed in a lot of ways, but we're all figuring it out together and helping each other out along the way.”