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Maggie Hamielec

MPH student Maggie Hamielec talks about working as a contact tracer and COVID

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 Maggie Hamielec.

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

A: I am currently working as a contact tracer with the CUPHD. One thing I love about this position is a public health background is not necessary, which allows many more individuals to be able to help out during this pandemic. While being in the MPH program is a bonus, I don’t think it is a training that is explicitly needed to be an effective contact tracer.

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

A: I would like to either work in research on sexual health/health education or work in infectious disease epidemiology.

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

A: My job as a contact tracer has two main tasks: interviewing confirmed COVID-19 cases and notifying individuals who were in contact to a confirmed case that they need to quarantine.

During positive case interviews, we ask about symptoms and pre-existing conditions to collect epidemiologic data, known exposures to other positive cases to determine how the virus is being spread in the community and information about employment, household members and socializing to identify close contacts that will need to quarantine. We also ask if the cases have everything to isolate safely and do everything we can to provide them with resources needed such as food, shelter, housing/income resources, masks, thermometers and toiletries.

During close contact notifications, we tell the individuals the date of exposure, explain how long and why they will need to quarantine, educate them on symptoms, provide them information on testing and as with positive cases, we also ask about any resources needed to make sure they can quarantine safely.

For both groups, we also monitor the individuals throughout their isolation/quarantine periods using health assessments, which ask about symptoms, if the person has had to leave isolation/quarantine for any reason and as a way to follow again to make sure the individual is able to isolate/quarantine safely.

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

A: Not always. It definitely varies from person to person. I have spoken to individuals who are willing to tell me every single place they have been in the prior month and I have people who swear at me for asking how they are feeling because that is “personal information”. I think people often fear that they will get in trouble for telling us who they have been around or where they have been. I can understand why some feel that way, but CUPHD is more concerned about preventing the spread of COVID-19 within our community than it is with punishing those not following health guidelines.

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

A: Yes! It is incredibly frustrating to hear about weddings, parties on campus or even people knowingly leaving isolation while infectious. I understand the burnout and pandemic feeling that most, if not all of us are currently feeling, but ignoring our problems never works. As time has gone on, my frustrations are less about the individuals within our community, and more about the federal government continuing to dismiss the pandemic. This is a team effort and without clear, well-communicated national health guidelines, we are going to continue to struggle with controlling the spread of COVID-19.

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

A: I do have a lot of family and friends ask for COVID advice. Most often it is about what qualifies as close contact and how concerned one should be if they were exposed. I also have explained infectious periods more times than I can count (cue an “If I had a nickel for every time I was asked about COVID, I could afford to pay off my student loans” joke). It does get a little bit tiring, but the whole reason I am in public health is because I am passionate about community wellbeing. Knowing that I am someone whose opinion and experience is trusted and valued by my loved ones keeps the burnout at bay and reminds me what I am working hard for!

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

A: As someone who considers themself an extravert, it is working face-to-face! One thing this pandemic has really halted is the ability to socialize with people I work with. Zoom calls and social distancing make it very hard to connect with people outside of professional/academic settings.

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

A: My mom lives in Poland and I had planned on visiting her in August and unfortunately was not able to due to the pandemic. Last time I saw her was in 2017 when I had just graduated high school and I wanted to keep up the post-grad tradition as I finished my undergraduate degree this summer as well.

I have not traveled much. I do enjoy being outdoors, so I have gone hiking a few times in Kickapoo State Park and Shawnee National Forest when the weather was nice!

I have gone home to the suburbs to see my dad, something I would not be comfortable doing if I wasn’t privileged and able to quarantine before and after seeing him, in addition to test frequently thanks to being a student here at UIUC and having a job that allows me to maintain social distance and mandates proper PPE.

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