Graduate students assist with COVID-19 containment efforts, gain real-world experience

(Illustration by Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group)

The Student Outbreak Response Team at Kansas State works with the Riley County Health Department to aid in public outreach events and provide additional assistance during outbreaks.

The student organization consists of members from the College of Veterinary Medicine and master’s of public health program, and was started in 2017 through the collaboration of Andrew Adams, public health emergency preparedness coordinator, and alumna Serina Taylor.

Taylor helped design and get approval to start SORT with the goal of creating opportunities for K-State MPH students to get additional epidemiology experience on top of the internship that is required for the program.

“It’s basically an organization that is not only used to help out Riley County in what is called ‘surge capacity,’ … it also will allow students to get additional exposure to public health and additional time in a public health setting,” Taylor said. “I know a lot of times when I was looking for jobs, a lot of them were like ‘We want two years of experience.’ Well, if we’re in school that’s just not going to happen.”

Taylor, who graduated in 2018 with an MPH, is now a disease investigator with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. She said programs like SORT are essential for implementing public health measures and contact tracing.

“As somebody who works currently in a large public health department, we rely heavily on additional people outside our core team,” Taylor said. “It’s also helpful for contact tracing. It’s very burdensome if there’s only a small group of people doing it, because you can get overwhelmed very quickly.”

Molly Allison, second-year veterinary medicine student at K-State with an MPH in epidemiology, joined SORT at the beginning of the last school year, and is currently volunteering to help with contact tracing for COVID-19 in Riley County.

“Contact tracing is reaching out to folks who have either been recently diagnosed with COVID-19, or they are a close contact of somebody who has been recently diagnosed,” Allison said. “So we go through a brief questionnaire with those people over the phone and ask them questions like, ‘Have you had any symptoms? Where have you been in the two weeks prior to your symptom onset?’ As well as, ‘Have you been anywhere afterwards?’”

Last semester, Allison helped with community events that Riley County organized, and said her involvement with SORT has helped her work on her communication skills and affirmed to her decision to study public health.

“I like the public health department atmosphere,” Allison said. “Just like really great people to work with, and people who have a drive to keep people safe, keep people healthy, keep animals healthy. It’s just like you feel useful, and you feel like you’re doing something good.”

In regards to the current pandemic, Adams said SORT was created exactly for this kind of scenario.

“The team members have been a vital part of our surge capacity plans for disease investigation and contact tracing, just as we intended them to be,” Adams said in an email.

Adams continues to serve as the department’s point of contact for SORT, provides training and works with the team president to activate the team for response.

Adams said the pandemic underscores the importance of local health departments leveraging local resources and partnerships.

“Specifically, we’ve been able to use our existing relationship with the MPH program and College of Veterinary Medicine to build an even stronger partnership using the SORT,” Adams said. “Many schools and programs of public health have a similar team/initiative, though I would love to see the model adopted for all schools and programs of public health nationwide.”

My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.