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More Than Contact Tracers, Students ‘Want To Make a Difference’
As everyone in the Syracuse University community has learned, 2020 is about staying nimble and getting creative.
So when students hired for the Syracuse University COVID-19 contact tracing team did not have many contacts to trace, they nimbly and creatively morphed into what student supervisor Taylor Spires calls the “COVID response team.”
Led by Adam “AJ” Florkowski, operations program manager for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and a member of the COVID-19 Project Management Office, the team of nearly 50 students is also involved with testing, lab processing, case evaluations, quarantine protocols, scheduling and managing, and even collecting wastewater that’s tested for the coronavirus.
“We all signed up to be contact tracers, but 90 percent of us haven’t had to do much of that,” Spires says. “We’re all doing a little bit of everything, and we’re having fun with that. We love working with each other and the administration has been very helpful working with us.”
Florkowski says the original plan was to hire 20 students in July to serve at contact tracers who would help identify and collect information from students who may have been in contact with an infected person. But as students returned to campus in early August, testing ramped up and help was needed to run lab tests and perform other necessary duties.
Contact tracers, grab your lab coats.
“It’s one big, happy pool of students, each with primary responsibility but they can do any number of jobs,” Florkowski says. “It’s a multi-talented group of students who we wouldn’t be able to function without. We are depending on them to help with our overall response.”
‘I Try to Be Community-Oriented’
As an older student with a military background, Issak Hernandez is one of the students who has emerged as a leader for the COVID-19 response team.
Hernandez is from Blythe, California, which borders Arizona along the Colorado River. He joined the U.S. Army after high school and was stationed at Fort Drum near Watertown for three of his six-year stint. Familiar with the city of Syracuse and knowing that Syracuse University is the premier school for veterans, he enrolled at the university two years ago to study information management and technology.
Hernandez had a summer internship lined up in Illinois, but when that fell through because of the pandemic he searched for on-campus jobs at Syracuse and was intrigued by the contact tracing opportunity.
“I try to be community-oriented, and this was a good opportunity to work with the community and do my part to contribute to protecting the community,” Hernandez says.
At first, Hernandez was involved in testing, contact tracing and coordinating test results with the Onondaga County Health Department. As the team evolved, Hernandez moved into a supervisory role, implementing and managing the schedule for the team members.
“I’ve noticed with a lot of my peers that I’m working with, their majors are in public health or totally different fields than mine,” he says. “I think mixing majors like we have been, you get a broad overview of a team that can come together and work toward a specific type of project.”
Hernandez says the time management and prioritization skills he learned in the military have come in handy for his current role. And it also helps, Hernandez says, that the team members are “mature, understanding, flexible and adaptable” as the pandemic—and the university’s response to it—remains a moving target.
“They’ve all been very professional when they have to work, and there’s not much oversight Taylor [Spires] and I have to provide,” Hernandez says. “When it comes to following guidelines, we are representatives of the university and we all take it very seriously.”
‘I Love My Job’
This summer, Spires watched the Zoom information meetings for students and parents hosted by J. Michael Haynie, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, who is leading Syracuse’s COVID-19 response. A native of Cazenovia in neighboring Madison County, Spires was intrigued when Haynie discussed the plan to hire a team of contact tracers.
“I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew I wanted to be a part of the return to campus,” says Spires, a senior majoring in biochemistry. “I am from this community and I have a responsibility to step up.”
Like other members of the team, Spires has “done a little bit of everything,” from testing to drive-thru screenings to pooling samples at the lab. Her primary role now is making daily check-in calls with all students who are in quarantine and working with the pod leaders to make sure those students’ needs are met.
Spires did not perform any actual contact tracing duties until Oct. 7, when she interviewed a student who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“There are always students and people who don’t want to talk, but for the most part, everyone is pretty amicable and understanding that what we’re doing is not a punitive thing, it’s a public health safety thing,’’ Spires says.
Spires says her experience with the COVID-19 response team has her considering a career in public health management.
“I love my job,” Spires says. “I’m fascinated with public health and this has completely changed what I want to do next year. I had planned on getting my master’s here, but now I’m thinking of taking a couple of years off and seeing if there’s something I’m doing now that I can be doing next year.”
‘They Want to Make A Difference’
Florkowski, the response team’s supervisor, is a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who spent 21 years in the service—nearly 12 on active duty as an engineer officer from 1999-2010, and the last 10 in the Army Reserves. From this March through July, he was mobilized through the Army Reserves to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response in New York State.
FEMA was the lead agency for the response and each state has a team of Emergency Planning Liaison Officers (EPLO) that support FEMA. Florkowski is an EPLO who worked hand in hand with FEMA and the New York State National Guard.
That experience prepared Florkowski to help lead the university’s response efforts. What he did not anticipate at the start of the response was that the group of students he was supposed to supervise as contact tracers would so eagerly pivot to fill other positions that were critical to the response.
“They’re doing it because they want to make a difference,” Florkowski says. “They talked about coming back to SU and making it through the semester, and these guys want to be part of the solution that helps everybody get there.”
For Florkowski, getting “there” remains the primary goal. While the low number of confirmed infections among students has limited the need for contact tracing, his team continues to play an instrumental role with their various roles and as ambassadors of public health messaging for their peers.
“I’m very happy with the response we’ve seen from the student body as they’re mostly following safety measures and policing their own ranks,” Florkowski says. “I’m very proud of all our students, because we could have the best safety protocols in place but if the students don’t choose to follow them, we are right back to square one.”
Join the Team
There’s room for more students on the COVID-19 response team. If you have the time and interest to assist with testing, lab work, contact tracing and other duties, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the COVID-19 response help desk at 315.443.6180.