La Salle contact tracers: ‘We’re here to help’

January 11, 2021

Image of a student entering a COVID-19 testing site at La Salle University

La Salle’s contact tracing program has expanded for the spring semester. In the fall, students worked behind the scenes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Tatianna Hernandez, ’21, picked up a phone and started dialing. Anxiety crept in, she said, as the phone began ringing. Would the call send her to a voicemail prompt? Was Hernandez ready in case someone answered?

From August through December, Hernandez and other La Salle University students placed the calls that no one wanted to receive. The students—a mix of undergraduate- and graduate-level students, including those in the nursing and social work programs—supported the University’s COVID-19 contact tracing efforts.

Contact tracing refers to the part of the recovery process when close contacts of an individual who tested positive with COVID-19 are informed of their exposure in order to stop chains of transmission. (Close contacts are defined as individuals who were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.)

The work of La Salle’s COVID-19 contact tracers in the fall semester focused on mitigating spread of the coronavirus at La Salle in order to keep the campus community as healthy as possible. Approximately 40 students, in small and physically distanced cohorts, maintained regular shifts at a phone bank that was arranged in a vacant office space at St. Benilde Tower, home of La Salle’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences. Others worked their shifts from home. They connected with La Salle students who maintained an active campus presence and alerted the University that they had tested positive. La Salle’s contact tracers asked and answered questions, offered counsel, directed them to University and city resources, and, importantly, aimed to provide peace of mind. They also called those who had tested positive in order to determine others in the La Salle community with whom they possibly inadvertently exposed to the virus.

“This work was so crucial to stopping the spread and avoiding any possible outbreaks,” said Hernandez, a nursing major from Lindenwold, N.J. “It’s important to continue educating our community and implementing safety measures to ensure a safe and healthy campus.”

“And it’s important to connect with people and just let them know they are not alone,” Hernandez added. “In particular, with fellow students, having them hear reassuring words from someone else around their same age definitely helps.”

La Salle has developed a more-robust contact tracing program for the spring semester, in anticipation of what will be a much-larger campus presence. No longer will students speak directly with those who have tested positive. Instead, full-time employees working daily will handle these calls. And students and employees are now required to complete a COVID-19 disclosure form if they test positive, experience COVID-19 symptoms, come into close contact with someone who has tested positive, or learns secondhand of another member of the campus community who has tested positive.

Contact tracing efforts at La Salle remain critically important, said assistant professor of nursing Kathleen Monforto, Ph.D., no matter who is working the phones. The country is currently wrestling with its second and more-severe wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases and casualties continue to increase exponentially.

“In a pandemic-free society, our students would have been conducting public health clinical rotations at senior centers and flu vaccine clinics,” said Monforto, one of multiple faculty members overseeing the contact tracing rotations. “Instead, our students performed essential work that will better prepare them for their careers, while also ensuring the collective health of our campus community and neighbors in Northwest Philadelphia.”

That essential contact-tracing work continues into the spring.

How you can help

Surges in COVID-19 cases are anticipated as cold-weather seasons overlap with cold and flu seasons and push people toward indoor settings that are more conducive to transmission of the virus. It’s imperative that members of the La Salle community answer the phone when contacted by a University contact tracer, said Kate Ward-Gaus, assistant vice president of student wellness, in order to reduce COVID-19’s impact on La Salle’s campus.

“Contact tracing is a critically important tool in any community—La Salle’s included—being able to successfully combat the spread of the coronavirus,” Ward-Gaus said. “We lead busy lives. We may be in a class, on another call, or merely away from our phones. When you get that call from us, we ask that you listen to the voicemail and follow the instructions to get back in contact with us. Your safety and the safety of the rest of our community hinges upon your participation in this program.”

Not every student or employee will answer a contact tracer’s call.

“And that’s OK,” said Sylvia Young, MSN ’16, ’21, a contact tracer during the fall semester. “In the end, if we’re able to put even just one student or one employee in contact with food, resources, and access to tests, we have done our job. Our job was anchored in giving them information and supporting them. And for everyone else at La Salle, it’s about giving them a great comfort knowing that we are here to serve and protect.”

This spring, students and employees can help by updating their contact information on file with the University—particularly your cell phone number.

Here’s what to do if you test positive for COVID-19, experience COVID-19 symptoms, come into contact with a positive case of COVID-19, or learn of another member of La Salle’s community who has tested positive.


Immediate step:

Next steps:

  • Follow-up contact: Members of the University’s contact tracing team will connect with you to learn of others on campus with whom you may have interacted.
  • Access to resources: The contact tracing team also will ask whether you have access to food and other essentials while you are in quarantine or isolation.
  • Contact tracing: Those identified as close contacts by an individual who has tested positive will receive automated notification via email and/or text message. Upon receipt, you should begin quarantining immediately in order to limit your exposure to others.

More information:

Preparing for Spring 2021

La Salle’s return to an on-campus experience in Spring 2021 requires the collective responsibility of everyone on campus, Ward-Gaus said. That means adherence to the core public health tenets: maintaining good hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, monitoring our health daily, wearing face masks, avoiding gatherings of any size, and practicing physical distancing.

It also necessitates cooperation with La Salle’s contact tracers. While the program has changed for spring, with increased staffing and hours of operation, its significance remains intact.

Speaking of the program’s value, Laurie Colborn, Ed.D., an adjunct clinical faculty member, recounted a story from the fall semester: One of La Salle’s contact tracers spoke to a student who had alerted the university of a positive test result.

“In this student’s lowest moment, they were able to express gratitude to us,” said Colborn, the director of La Salle’s Neighborhood Nursing Center. “Hearing that our contact tracers can put them at ease and provide much-needed reassurance helps demonstrate that we’re doing everything we can to protect our campus and our community.”

“By protecting La Salle and limiting our cases, we are lessening our burden on the neighborhood we live in,” said Catherine Foy, ’21, a nursing major from Southampton, Pa., “and preventing resources from being taken away from the people who live in North Philadelphia year-round.”

Experiential learning opportunity in fall semester

Well before La Salle started planning for the Spring 2021 semester, University leaders first had to plan for the fall term and an anticipated return to campus. That never happened, with the University choosing a nearly completely virtual instruction and operations that prioritized overall campus wellness.

Nonetheless, there was a clear and demonstrated need for the University to establish a contact tracing program. All the while, rising case counts in the City of Philadelphia placed additional burden on contact tracers with Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health (PDPH). These case totals also led local hospitals and health care systems, in some cases, to discontinue the affiliations and clinical experiences they provide for college students—including those from La Salle’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Administrators at the school quickly identified the opportunity to establish a clinical rotation and identified groups that would support the La Salle contact tracing team working through Student Wellness Services. Multiple faculty members and administrators at the University collaborated to create and implement a seven-week contact tracing clinical rotation upper-level undergraduate public health nursing students, including Ward-Gaus; Mary Wilby, Ph.D., assistant professor of nursing; and Candace Robertson-James, DRPH, assistant professor of public health. In addition to this clinical rotation, the contact tracing program received support from graduate nursing students, public health students, and social work students. In order to participate, the University required that all students earn a contact tracing certificate from Johns Hopkins University.

“This is considered the benchmark credential. PDPH’s contact tracers complete a similar program and we wanted to hold our students to the same standard,” said Colborn.

Colborn, Monforto, and Ward-Gaus, among others, also completed the Johns Hopkins certification program. In essence, Colborn said, any faculty or staff member who is overseeing La Salle’s contact tracers needed to have the same baseline training.

“We were in the room with students while they were making calls. Seeing their professors and campus public health leaders completing the program reinforced its value with our students and improved their confidence,” Colborn said.

How it worked

Contact tracing is critical in stopping the spread of the virus, public health experts agree. That’s why the University developed a contact tracing and notification protocol for students and employees. The University’s contact tracing program adheres to CDC guidance and best practices for confidentiality, HIPAA protections, and pandemic exceptions for the public good.

Here’s how it worked: A student or employee either working, living, or learning on campus during the fall semester would notify the University if they had tested positive for COVID-19. Upon receiving notification, La Salle’s contact tracers lead outreach to the individual.

“We kept the focus on the person we were speaking with,” Monforto said. “Our goals were simple—keep them safe, keep them educated, and provide them with the resources they need, like access to food or services at La Salle’s Student Counseling Center.”

La Salle’s contact tracers followed a script when they were speaking with either an individual who has tested positive or one of their close contacts. The script “gave us our bearings before we picked up the phone,” said Emily Morris, ’21, a nursing student from Flourtown, Pa. While scripted, the calls were anything but transactional.

“An important component of what we did,” said Bridget Hickey, ’21, a nursing major from Marlton, N.J., and a La Salle contact tracer, “was engaging in therapeutic communication.”

Hickey added: “Students may not want to look up the symptoms. They may not read the news. We were there to give them information without requiring them to look it up. We brought the reality of this situation—giving someone really bad news—by sounding authentic and without sounding judgmental. It’s a more positive method of communication that assured someone that, ‘Hey, we’re here to help you.”

—Christopher A. Vito