Slowing the Pandemic

Rosa Cantu, contact tracing, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Rosa Cantu was among the first at UTC to receive a master’s degree in public health and soon found herself back at the University leading the overall contact tracing effort. 

In May, Rosa Cantu became a member of the inaugural class of graduates of the master’s degree program in public health. She and her classmates had no idea just how crucial their discipline would be when they began the public health program two years ago. There’s no way they could have known that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga—the world—would be in the throes of responding to a pandemic. 

Cantu says she was initially drawn to public health because she was interested in diabetes and obesity prevention and wasn’t really prepared to “start over” when she graduated. She was comfortable with her job and had no plans to look for a public health-specific job right away. 

But as the economy fell, her position at a local health clinic was eliminated, giving her a fateful push in a new direction. Last summer, she began work in contact tracing on COVID-19 for the Hamilton County Health Department. “Thankfully, with the background that I had and the new degree, the Hamilton County Health Department was a perfect opportunity,” Cantu says. 

As UTC prepared to bring students back to campus for  fall semester—stocking up on hand sanitizer, disinfectants, face masks and contact tracers—there was an immediate need for someone who could manage everyone who would be working to keep COVID contained at UTC. Cantu was hired for the job. In her new role as COVID-19 contact tracer coordinator, Cantu currently leads more than 70 tracers at UTC. “It’s a really huge undertaking.” she says. ”I can’t think about it too much or it would scare me.” 

Her optimistic demeanor doesn’t show a hint of fear, though. Around her base of operations in the University library, there is bustling energy. Voices rise and fall. Keyboards clack. A door opens and shuts. Phones ring. Cantu is unfazed. She speaks in a calm, collected voice as she Zooms from her corner desk. 

Although many work remotely, some contact tracers are camped out in the same Library space with Cantu—properly social distanced, of course. The team ranges from undergraduate and graduate students studying psychology, biology, social work, public health and nursing to UTC employees either temporarily reassigned to a new role, hired for the job or volunteering hours of their day. They monitor University students and employees who have tested positive for or have come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Tracers check in with students and employees through phone calls and text to maintain a “friendlier vibe,” Cantu says. That demeanor is especially important to keep with students because “We want to reassure them that everything is going to be ok,” she adds.  

Some of the team’s work also involves case investigation. Tracers interview employees or students who test positive to map out any person they might have come in close contact with during their infectious periods. They then begin reaching out to those contacts to initiate quarantine, if needed, and check in daily to monitor for symptoms. COVID “is a real threat to everyone,” Cantu explains. “The thing that unifies all of us on the contact tracing team is that we understand that we have to keep our campus safe and healthy.” 

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