Although University of Texas Permian Basin nursing student Lorena Najera is undergoing training during what most would consider a dark time — the era of COVID-19 — she considers it a once–in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Najera, who is in her fourth semester, is one of 15 nursing students helping the Ector County Health Department with contact tracing during this pandemic.
UTPB Assistant Professor of Nursing Diana Ruiz said nursing students like Najera are helping the Ector County Health Department call all the individuals that were exposed to someone who was identified as positive with COVID-19.
“After training, they let us go and listen to some of the calls. And after that this Monday, I had my first call with one of the contacts. It’s pretty interesting to know how you have to approach these people when you’re calling them because you don’t know if they know the person that they contracted it from. You don’t know if they are having those signs and symptoms. You’re basically just starting from scratch and trying to add the pieces together,” Najera said.
“Since it was my first call, the guy was Spanish speaking so it was a little nerve racking trying to translate the forms into Spanish. The person was more than willing to answer my questions. He didn’t have any questions afterwards. He just knew that he needed to stay and just take the precautions he needed,” she added.
It’s a unique chance for her career path to public health, which she didn’t realize was a possibility until she took the class with Ruiz.
“I find that this is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not everybody gets to be at the command center and having the opportunity to be in contact with these people and I feel like it’s a different hands-on approach, but it’s still beneficial to public health nursing,” Najera said.
She expressed thanks to Ruiz for the chance to help fight COVID-19.
“We are falcon nursing!” Najera said.
She added that everyone at the Emergency Operations Center has been very welcoming and nice.
“And they feel that we’re going to play a very vital role,” Najera said.
Ruiz said the role of Najera and the other students means a lot of phone calls.
“… What’s interesting is an average each phone call can last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes and some individuals might have 100 people to call and others might have two to call. So it’s an amazing learning opportunity for them,” Ruiz said. “It’s a great way for them to get involved in the community and feel like they’re actually putting their public health education to use in a very productive manner,” Ruiz said.
She added that the health department has coached her and then she teaches her students how to contact trace.
“They are actually getting to work with other health care professionals in the process, so they’re going to training alongside residents and other students that might want to volunteer to help do the contact tracing as well,” Ruiz said.
Training is a multi-step process, she added.
“In essence, we are providing them with didactic information, so we do the actual hands-on training where we show them the process. We’ve created a PowerPoint module for them so that everybody will be trained the same way. We created a quiz so we can verify that they understand the process because there’s a lot of complex steps to follow when you’re making a phone call to determine if someone needs to be tested or not. Then after they do the module and the quiz … we have them shadow one of the health department team members that is actually making the calls …,” Ruiz said.
“As soon as we feel that they are confident enough to start making the calls on their own, then they will be assigned calls to make here at the command center, and of course, under the supervision of myself and the health department team,” she added.
This chance coincided “beautifully” with the students’ semester, Ruiz said.
“… When the judge put this call for help out a couple of weeks ago, I immediately contacted (County) Judge (Debi) Hays after getting approval from the university and our dean to say can our students help? I think this would be an amazing opportunity for them to really put to practice the education they’ve received this semester and really help them transition into the unpredictable world of health care overall,” Ruiz added.
She said they would probably pause on the 15 students trained so far, and if the need warrants, they will train more.
“But the interesting thing is now we can transition and start training residents, so that’s very exciting because our nursing students will get to work alongside medical residents and that’s not usually something that they get to experience, so I’m very excited the inter-professional collaboration experience that they’re getting here,” Ruiz said.