Answering the Call | Regis Today Summer 2020

Regis public health students step up to help trace COVID-19 in Massachusetts



When Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called on local public health college students to assist the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) in tracing COVID-19 cases to help contain the virus spread, 40 Regis College students were among those who quickly volunteered. The global pandemic and the partnership—a first-of-its-kind in the nation, according to the governor—provide an unexpected opportunity to learn and serve.

“This is the epitome of public health: having these institutions come together to work for a common goal,” said Laura Burke, ScD, dean of the School of Health Sciences at Regis. 

Regis Program Director of Public Health Leslie Mandel, PhD, initially proposed the idea of partnering with DPH to Regis faculty and staff. When public health major Markina Ako-Brew ’21 heard about the opportunity to volunteer for the COVID-Regis initiative from a professor during class, she at first wondered if she was qualified. But once she signed up she felt a sense of relief and excitement. 

“COVID-19 is something that is going to change our world and I was excited to help the public health department to contain the spread of it,” says Ako-Brew, who has completed rigorous training and is now helping trace the spread of coronavirus cases. She is serving on the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (Volunteer Corps), an initiative of approximately 1,800 public health students and professionals who have volunteered to help “flatten the curve” by partnering with local health departments across Massachusetts. 

Ako-Brew is working remotely by phone to contact patients who tested positive for the virus to gather data on symptoms, help identify those who may have had exposure to the virus through close contact, and to share information on how to quarantine. 

Angie Colon ’20 knew right away that she wanted to join the hundreds of other college students for the initiative. “I was nervous because I wasn’t sure of the task I was volunteering for, but I just wanted to be able to help during the COVID-19 pandemic; I didn’t hesitate to sign up.”

Public health has often been somewhat hidden because when it works, no one notices. This crisis is likely to raise awareness and hopefully resources for public health efforts globally, nationally, and locally.”

Colon will focus on tracing with patients in Chelsea, an area with the highest infection rate in Massachusetts. Though not specifically assigned as a translator, Colon will be a critical resource for Spanish-speaking patients on the contact list. It’s something she is particularly interested in, having seen the effect of language barriers in her own community of Methuen.

“A lot of family and friends have been asking me questions about COVID-19 that can easily be seen on the news but they just want to hear it from someone they know and trust,” says Colon, who is holding a full-time job as a community health worker at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center while completing a public health bachelor’s degree at the Regis North satellite campus located at Northern Essex Community College (NECC). “Many don’t know who to contact because they don’t speak English, or they are just afraid to call and ask for a translator.”

Even before she joined the Volunteer Corps, Colon was raising awareness of COVID-19 resources by sharing information she received at work. It’s not so different from what she did as a little girl, translating for her mother and helping fill out medical paperwork.

Ako-Brew, who works on the front lines as a certified nursing assistant at an assisted living facility, is also drawing from personal experiences as she navigates the pandemic and her career path. Her first memory of being in Louisiana as a young girl, for example, was in a hospital visiting her grandmother who had cancer. 

Angie Colon ’20 (left) and Markina Ako-Brew ’21 are volunteering with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to help trace COVID-19 cases.

“I would watch the nurses come in and out of the room to try to ease my grandma’s pain,” Ako-Brew recalls. “I knew right then and there I wanted to be a nurse, the person who could hold a patient’s hand when the family couldn’t be there.”

A public health degree is helping her get there—and is also providing new perspective that is critical in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In nursing school you learn how to treat the problem that the patient has already developed,” Ako-Brew says. “In public health you get to learn preventive skills and how to solve the problem before it becomes a bigger problem.”  

“The COVID-19 pandemic is providing meaningful ways to bring Regis public health and other related health science disciplines to the fore,” says Mandel. “It will potentially translate into new job opportunities for college graduates.”

A case in point is Partners In Health. The organization—which has a longstanding relationship with Regis and is supporting the state’s efforts to trace contacts of COVID-19 patients—is recruiting new employees, including a Regis student, for coronavirus-related positions.

“Despite the tremendous challenges posed by COVID-19, the opportunities to dynamically engage Regis students in public health are unprecedented,” says Mandel, who is working with DPH to evaluate the Volunteer Corps model to help establish best practices. “Public health has often been somewhat hidden because when it works, no one notices. This crisis is likely to raise awareness and hopefully resources for public health efforts globally, nationally, and locally.” 

Ako-Brew—who knows people with COVID-19 and one person who passed away from it—was eager to put her preventive skills to work in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. “This virus has impacted so many people so far and I wanted to help out in some way. Right now, this is the way I can do that.”  

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