Barrett alums Daniela Ledesma and Hanna Maroofi working with outbreak response team to compile data on COVID-19 cases
Barrett, The Honors College graduates Hanna Maroofi and Daniela Ledesma were among the first to join ASU’s COVID-19 case investigation program in collaboration with the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
The program, called the Student Outbreak Response Team, or SORT, is a partnership among ASU, ADHS and MCDPH that conducts case investigations for COVID-19. The project began last summer when Dr. Megan Jehn, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, recruited Maroofi and Ledesma, along with a few other ASU graduates, to build a case investigation program at a time when Arizona was experiencing significant spikes in novel coronavirus cases.
After nearly four months in operation, the team has grown to around 100 students, many of whom are in Barrett, and 200 volunteers across the nation. The team, which has closed more than 5,000 cases, started out collecting data five days a week and expanded its work to seven days a week.
Maroofi and Ledesma, both of whom graduated from ASU and Barrett in May and are now Master of Health Science in epidemiology candidates at Johns Hopkins University, have similar stories when it comes to their career paths thus far.
Both arrived at ASU with aspirations of attending medical school and were first introduced to the public health field in Dr. Jehn’s epidemics and outbreaks class (ASM 201) in their sophomore year.
After that, Maroofi changed her majors to biology and society and global health and Ledesma changed hers to global health. Their senior year, they both took an applied epidemiology course through which they completed internships with ADHS doing case investigations for food and waterborne illnesses.
Maroofi said SORT’s work is important in the fight to manage the pandemic.
“It helps with the burden of case surges that Arizona experienced over the summer, so in that June to August period,” Maroofi said.
“Being able to just provide them (ADHS and MCDPH) a workforce to help them get through those case investigations and make sure that positive cases are at least able to be contacted and given the recommended isolation and quarantine guidelines is the main focus of our partnership with them.”
The case investigation process begins with a list of COVID-19 cases the team receives from Maricopa County every day. The team members are assigned cases and get to work interviewing the people on the list.
In their interviews, the team asks about people who the COVID-19 patients have been in close contact with and what their symptoms are, relays information to them about quarantining procedures and connects them with resources like medical and social support.
The data the team collects then goes back to the MCDPH and ADHS for use in contact tracing, research and reports on public health.
Ledesma said seeing the way public health systems work from the inside as well as in her graduate school classes has opened her eyes to the importance of strong public health systems to respond to unexpected emergencies like the pandemic.
"I think that the really exciting part for me is knowing that I'm actively working in case investigations and helping to manage our case investigations, while also being connected to so many public health leaders at JHU, as well as learning applied epidemiology, while doing applied epidemiology,” Maroofi said.
“We're learning about how to respond to outbreaks and what types of tools are used by public health professionals, while actually doing all of those things in real-time,” she said.
For Maroofi, being involved in the project partly serves as confirmation that she is on the right path in epidemiology.
“It's helped solidify that dream. This is the right path for me, and this is the career I want to go into, and this is where my passions and my interests lie,” Maroofi said. “And it's exciting now, especially with all of the Barrett students that we have as part of our workforce.”
She said while she didn’t have much of an awareness about the public health sector or epidemiology before taking Jehn’s class her sophomore year, she feels many young people are now “acutely sensitive” to public health issues because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I see that in the future as these students from different platforms and different fields go into their careers after graduating from Barrett, after graduating from ASU, starting into their career path, they will be able to demonstrate that appreciation of public health in their respective fields and become stronger advocates for public health,” Maroofi said.
“They'll be able to demonstrate an increased level of confidence in the public health work that's being done for future issues and I think that's really imperative because this might not be the last pandemic that the world encounters. Emerging infectious diseases are always popping up.”
Ledesma and Maroofi said they are inspired by the number of students who have shown interest in SORT this fall and hope that the interdisciplinary nature of the program will help students recognize their own passion for public health.
“I think something that makes our program really special is how interdisciplinary it is and that we're not only recruiting specifically public health or global health students but really anyone of any background can join,” Ledesma said.
“That's led to us having people of all different ages, living in different cities, in different pipelines of different schools, you know, social work, public health, … AmeriCorps volunteers also join our program, so it's a really diverse group.”
The team will start recruiting new students and volunteers soon and Maroofi said she hopes they are able to bring more Barrett students aboard the project.
Students don’t need to come with an extensive knowledge of COVID-19 or public health, but just a desire to learn, Ledesma said.
“As long as you have a positive attitude and undertake the trainings that we have for you and are ready to show up for your shift on time and do a good job, then there's always a place for you on our team,” Ledesma said.
SORT accepts student and non-student volunteers. Anyone who is interested in volunteering should send an email expressing their interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maroofi hopes Barrett students take the fullest advantage of the resources they have access to through their Barrett professors, student jobs and the Honors Digest, so that they can make the same formative connections and changes that brought her to her true calling.
“I don't think my ASU experience in general would have been as valuable if I wasn't in Barrett,” Maroofi said. “I was able to, I think get to the point where I am now because of the connections and the opportunities that Barrett allowed me to make.”
Story by Greta Forslund, a Barrett, The Honors College student studying journalism at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.