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Faith Washington

MPH student Faith Washington talks about her contact tracing work

Students in the Master of Public Health program in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois have been asked by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Dept. to apply the skills they are learning as contact tracers. Periodically, we will speak with them about how they are doing in these roles. Today, we speak with Faith Washington.

Q: Is the work you're doing for CUPHD different than what you were trained for in the MPH program?

A: In the MPH program, I am studying health behavior and promotion, so there are a few parallels regarding convincing people to do what is in their own best interest and the public's best interest. I think the main difference is the turnaround time. For the health behaviors I study and would like to ultimately work to promote, the effects may not be seen as quickly as the impact of my advice regarding COVID-19 would be. For example, encouraging people to get screened for prostate cancer would potentially decrease the disease's mortality rates because more cases are caught in the early stages. Still, that data wouldn't be evident for quite a while, whereas encouraging people to isolate and quarantine has an almost immediate impact on the spread and identification of COVID-19 cases in the community.

Q: What field/industry were you hoping to work in upon graduation?

A: I hope to work in either public health program research, implementation, and evaluation at a state or federal level or to work as a health journalist. I am very passionate about improving the general public's health literacy so that people can better advocate for themselves and their needs in medical settings and ultimately lead healthier happier lives.

Q: What kinds of questions do you ask in the work you're currently doing?

A: As a contact tracer, I ask COVID-positive people how they feel, what symptoms they are experiencing if they require any resources like masks or food, and with whom they have recently interacted. At CUPHD, there is an emphasis on ensuring that everyone has what they need to safely and adequately quarantine or isolate. Hence, all of these questions are really important. I have found that giving out CUPHD contact information also reassures people that if they have a need that they don't disclose during the interview, that is OK. We will still be prepared to assist them.

Q: Do you find people are willing to respond truthfully?

A: For the most part, people are willing to answer truthfully. It becomes relatively easy to tell when people are being dishonest. The one question that seems to get the most pushback is, "Do you have any close contacts?" Generally, people do not want to give out the personal information of their friends and family. Still, once I explain that we protect and respect everyone's privacy and confidentiality and that we are only asking so that we may reach out to their close contacts and provide them with proper guidance and assistance regarding quarantine, people become more willing to disclose that information.

Q: Any frustrations that people are not listening to the health guidelines?

A: I become very frustrated when I see people not adhering to health guidelines because I see the negative impacts this virus has had on so many people and their families. It is hard to have one conversation with someone severely ill and potentially dying and then call another person who has mild symptoms or is asymptomatic and refuses to isolate and could be spreading this virus to others, who may then be my next severely ill call.

Q: Do people you know ask you for COVID advice?

A: My family doesn't ask me for COVID advice because I always offer it before they have a chance. I am always in contact with my parents and brother to ensure that they are not succumbing to quarantine fatigue and they are continuing to follow all health guidelines. Fortunately, my family has been taking this very seriously, and my parents and brother are all able to work and learn from home right now. My friends sometimes ask me for COVID advice or ask me general questions if they don't understand the reasoning behind something that public health officials are asking everyone to do right now. However, for the most part, my friends are also all still staying home and not really physically interacting with the world right now.

Q: What are you missing out on because of the pandemic, in terms of working face-to-face with people?

A: I think what I am most missing out on are the benefits of in-person classes. This is my first semester as an MPH grad student, but I studied communication with a concentration in health for my undergraduate degree here at UIUC, and there is such a stark difference between learning on Zoom and learning in a classroom. Mainly because there is so much collaboration necessary in public health courses. I am concerned that the connections I am making with my cohort are not as strong as they would have been had the semester been typical, but a lot of MPH students also work at CUPHD right now, so I do have more interaction with them through work, which I value a lot.

Q: What ways has COVID-19 affected you? Have you traveled? Have you been able to go home, see family?

A: I generally count myself as lucky because, while COVID has affected me a lot, it could have been much worse. Like many other class of 2020 students, I didn't get a formal graduation, which was upsetting. I also have not been able to see my friends from high school for a very long time. We usually all congregate when we are home in Chicago, but due to the pandemic, we haven't been home, and we haven't been willing to potentially risk the health of our families by being together. I also have not traveled, which is rare for me. I usually travel to see friends or just take a trip to some landmark or interesting spot in the country, but most things are closed, and I am also not willing to get on a plane right now. While all of these things have been less than ideal, I count myself as fortunate because I do not personally know anyone who has died from COVID, and I was the only member of my immediate family and friend group to ever catch the virus, which I recovered from.

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