In mid-March, UF converted classes to online and sent students home, all within a week’s time. As the spring went on, the question soon became: how can we bring tens of thousands of employees and students back to campus safely? The answer is a science- and data-driven program known as UF Health Screen, Test & Protect.
As the program’s lead epidemiologist, Jerne Shapiro, M.P.H., a faculty member in the department of epidemiology, is responsible for training and leading a large group of disease investigators who trace COVID-19 cases among employees and students; maintaining a massive database that tracks the status of UF personnel who have contracted or been exposed to the virus; and conducting several surveillance projects.
“The university has put an amazing amount of resources into UF Health Screen, Test & Protect and put it as their top priority,” Shapiro said. “We have been granted brilliant minds and lots of people in so many diverse areas to try to help our campus open up and maintain operations safely.”
A close relationship with the Alachua County Health Department is another strength, and makes UF’s return-to-campus program unique among others in the state, Shapiro said. Team members are hired by the health department, granting them the authority to isolate and quarantine individuals, as well as access to the state’s COVID-19 case data to cross-reference against the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect database, developed by UF informatics CTS-IT team and epidemiology assistant professor Kelly Gurka, Ph.D.
The testing arm of the program, led by PHHP alumna Meghan Nodurft-Froman, M.P.H., has tested thousands of employees and students at sites throughout campus and her team is now able to offer saliva testing at no out-of-pocket cost.
When a UF affiliate is diagnosed with COVID-19, a three-part investigation begins. To identify transmission trends, disease investigators learn what the individual had been doing in the 14 days prior. Investigators provide prevention education, such as explaining what it means to effectively isolate and how to protect loved ones. Next, they get in touch with every close contact of the infected person to place them in quarantine and monitor symptoms through daily text messages.
“That’s really how you break the chain of transmission, by reaching out to these individuals before they become able to infect others, and limit their exposure,” Shapiro said.
Cindy Prins, Ph.D., M.P.H., an epidemiology associate professor and PHHP’s assistant dean for educational affairs, is UF Health Screen, Test & Protect’s infection preventionist. With a background in virology and hospital infection control, Prins helps campus units conduct risk assessments and create plans for activities and events. The work takes her all over campus to consult on a wide variety of activities.
“It’s challenging, but I’ve been so surprised and impressed with the fact that everyone has put so much thought into their plans before I even meet with them,” said Prins, an alumna of the UF M.P.H. program. “By the time they contact me, they’ve got a really good plan in place and sometimes it’s just answering some questions or tweaking their plan a little bit. People are thinking so critically about how to do their activities and prevent infection.”
As the university eyes more in-person instruction in the spring, Prins plans to focus on compliance and education, helping different groups continue safe practices for the long haul, while balancing the campus community’s desire to gather together after months at a distance.
“We need to start thinking about how we can potentially bring more people together in groups and going back to a little bit more of our normal life, while still preventing infections,” she said.
— Jill Pease