Courtesy of Adaline Roll Adaline Roll has been taking part in Foothill College's Contact Tracing Corps and is now planning to pursue a master's degree in public health.

Adaline Roll has long had an interest in public health, but it wasn't until she started volunteering as a COVID-19 contact tracer through a Foothill College program that she knew it was the field for her.

“I’ve always wanted to help people in some way that has to do with health and well-being, but I’ve never felt that the medical field was the right route for me,” Roll said. “The contact tracing program really solidified my interest in public health and it actually led me to applying to graduate school for public health.”

Roll has spent the past several months helping with Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 response as part of Foothill College’s Contact Tracing Corps. The experience led her to apply to graduate school, and she was recently admitted to the University of San Francisco’s master’s program in public health with a behavioral health concentration. She plans to start in the fall.

Foothill’s Contact Tracing Corps comprises a group of volunteers who work for the county on a variety of tasks, including reaching out to notify residents who test positive for COVID-19, calling those who may have been exposed and, more recently, volunteering at vaccination clinics and helping people set up vaccine appointments. Corps members have completed roughly 3,300 hours of work, and there are currently 18 active members.

“They’re helping hundreds and hundreds of people to understand what it means to isolate and quarantine,” said Rebecca Ryan, a Foothill adjunct instructor who runs the corps. “They really are just there to help, and every member of the Contact Tracing Corps is a type of person that wants to help others.”

Stopping the spread

Roll decided to join the contact tracing program after getting an email from a Foothill professor about the volunteer opportunity. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara last year and was taking a class at Foothill while deciding her next steps.

When she joined the program, Roll said she completed a two-week training and then “jumped right into” the work. Volunteers like Roll do both case investigation and contact tracing.

Case investigation involves calling someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, explaining the isolation guidelines, potentially connecting them to resources such as rent and food assistance, answering questions and also trying to determine who they may have exposed to the virus. Contact tracing refers to calling those close contacts, explaining that they may have been exposed, reviewing quarantine guidelines and recommending they get tested.

“That’s really the goal of contact tracing – stopping the spread,” Roll said. “If we can reach the case and then their contacts, it really stops the progression of the virus from spreading.”

The contact tracing initiative began back in the fall, as a free class through Foothill’s Community Education program. When the formal course ended, it morphed into the Contact Tracing Corps, Ryan said. The Foothill-De Anza Foundation is offering $1,500 stipends to 15 students for their service.

Ryan, who earned a doctorate in health behavior and human sexuality, leads the corps. After working for the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health in 2019, Ryan already had connections that enabled her to set up the program.

Making difficult calls

Many of the corps members started volunteering during the height of the pandemic’s winter surge. At the time, there were so many cases that volunteers didn’t have time to contact trace, Ryan said, only to call those who had actually tested positive.

Roll joined as cases had begun to fall, and calling contacts was possible again, but she heard from others about how demanding the winter had been. Even beyond the surge itself, making the calls can be difficult.

Before she gets on the phone, Roll said she never knows exactly what the situation will be – sometimes the person is already quite sick, has family members who are ill or have died, or is worried about being able to afford necessities if he or she takes time off work to recover.

One call that particularly stood out to Roll was when she talked to a young mother who had gotten COVID-19 and couldn’t go to work, but was the sole income earner for her household. She couldn’t pay her rent and only had a few days of food left, Roll said. Over the course of the call, Roll learned that the woman’s parents were undocumented and she was scared about what would happen if they needed to go to the hospital for medical treatment.

“It’s really hard hearing that people can’t work and are concerned about their finances,” Roll said. “That part of the work is really emotionally straining.”

In such cases, she will try to connect the person with resources that can provide support. Roll said the calls have opened her eyes to the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on lower-income people and minority populations.

“The experiences that I have had really make me want to work toward creating a system that really focuses on the individuals out in the community – offering health care and services that are really needed,” she said.

In Santa Clara County, demographic data shows the disparity in who COVID-19 is impacting. For instance, Latino people make up over half of the COVID-19 cases identified, but only roughly a quarter of the county’s population.

Although the calls can be draining, Roll said the work is rewarding, especially getting to make follow-up calls and check on how people are faring.

“Most people are really appreciative of hearing from someone,” she said. “It feels good to at least be able to provide someone some comfort or empathy for what they are going through.”

As cases have declined in recent months, the corps members have been expanding the work that they do. Volunteers have helped at vaccination sites and made calls to people who have previously tested positive for the virus to help them schedule a vaccine appointment.

With more and more people vaccinated and cases slowing, Ryan said she doesn’t necessarily know what the future holds for the corps, but that it has so far adapted to meet the current conditions.

“It just branches off,” she said. “Things are pivoting and changing to meet the needs of the pandemic.”