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University of Limerick students hoping to ‘make a difference’ through contact tracing

Conor Clancy from Monaleen in Limerick and Aubree Worobetz, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, second year medical students at the UL Graduate Entry Medical School, who live in the same house, pictured working on the virtual contact tracing. Below, Alan Hayes of ITD
Wed, 15 Apr 2020

University of Limerick students involved in contact tracing in the fight against COVID-19 have said that “the lists are long” but they are hoping to “make a difference”.

The University, in partnership with the HSE, has set up the UL Virtual Hub with over 50 senior health sciences students trained to engage in contact tracing.

The students, from medicine, allied health and nursing, are making calls to inform people that they have tested positive, as well as providing health advice.

UL staff are managing the virtual contact tracing hub and are providing technical support and advice. A further 270 staff and students have signed up to volunteer in due course.

70 staff from Revenue, who were trained in UL, are responsible for follow-up calls to identify contacts of the person who has tested positive.

“I am incredibly proud of both staff and students, who have put in huge amounts of work in relation to training and setting up the virtual hub, whilst continuing with their other work,” said Professor Rachel Msetfi, Executive Dean, Faculty of Education and Health Sciences at UL, who is supporting the contact tracing scheme.

“Contact tracing is an incredibly important part of reducing transmission rates. When someone tests positive they receive several phone calls, one is to inform them that they are positive, provide advice on the steps they need to take, and so forth, recognising that the person they are calling might be very upset and anxious as a result of this news,” she added.

“Our UL staff are managing all of this; organising shifts, assigning the volunteers to particular roles and monitoring the contact tracing activity, answering the queries, and so forth. They have also set up a virtual hub to allow all of this activity and are liaising closely with the HSE.”

The UL student volunteers are currently carrying out up to 70 calls a day to those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Two of those volunteers, second year medical students at the UL Graduate Entry Medical School, Conor Clancy from Monaleen in Limerick and Aubree Worobetz, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, spoke about their experience of the contact tracing so far and how they are glad to be contributing “in any way possible”.

“I volunteered because I wanted to use the skills and experience I am getting from my course to help my community. We are not yet ready for hands-on action at medical facilities but I feel that by helping with tracing, I can support those who are and help prevent people from getting sick,” said Conor Clancy.

“The callers are getting through a good volume of calls every day and we have good support from the management team both from UL and the HSE. In that sense, it is filling a purpose, but the lists are still long and we are obviously hoping to have less calls to make in the coming weeks as social distancing procedures start to show results.

“The responses have been better than expected for me. Most people are well aware of the self-quarantine and/or isolation protocols and are responsibly at home and being looked after. What is worrying is the number of healthcare workers on the list. I have a brother and mother working as front line healthcare workers so I am hoping they continue to be safe. I hope that by doing this small bit of work I can help make sure they and other people like them are safe.

“Sometimes people are happy to get the information, some are even glad just to have a chat from being stuck at home. Luckily, my calls have been people who are well or have mild symptoms and the news has so far not come as too much of a shock,” Conor added.

Aubree Worobetz said she volunteered because “a lot of friends and family - both in Limerick and Canada - are essential workers in healthcare and the community. When the email came looking for medical students to volunteer it felt natural to volunteer and contribute in any way possible.

“A major part of our role is informing individuals that they have COVID-19. It is impressive how many people take their own initiative to self-isolate even before receiving the phone call saying they have tested positive. It is that type of proactivity that truly helps stop the spread of this virus.

“In general many people are simply relieved to finally have some information of their illness and are eager to know what they need to do next. People often want to talk and share stories of their life and how it has changed from this pandemic. Sometimes they bring up the struggles of managing both family and work from home. It is evident everyone has their own challenges through all this - sometimes it’s the few minutes of conversation that really puts people at ease during the phone calls we make,” she added.

Asked what it was like to be playing a role in the fight against COVID-19, Conor said: “It is nice to be able to do something positive to help, but it still feels very surreal to be doing it from lock-down at home. The work is all done remotely due to social distancing procedure so it is difficult to see the impact. But we have a good team of callers from UL who are helping each other out. Like everyone else, we are just waiting to see.

“I’m still new to a lot of the skills needed for practicing medicine, so it is challenging and I am not yet fully comfortable delivering bad news on the phone. But we are learning as we go along and hopefully making a difference,” he explained.

Aubree added: “It is difficult to see the impact, but it feels good to be playing a supportive role in this crisis. I think we all saw the same thing in this opportunity - a chance to support our community.”