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Dr. Nate Horwitz-Willis, DrPH, MPH, MPA, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Coordinator of Public Health Practice at MCPHS

MCPHS at the Forefront of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Contact Tracing

  • On Friday, April 3, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced a statewide initiative to track the spread of the COVID-19 in the Commonwealth. “The COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative,” as announced by the Governor, is an effort to contact individuals who have been exposed to a person testing positive for COVID-19 and convince them to take extra precautions to avoid the risk of exposing others to the virus. And MCPHS is at heart of the program.

    In April of 2019, The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) formed an Academic Health Department Consortium (AHD) with eight local schools and programs of public health, including MCPHS, Harvard, Boston University, and Northeastern with the common goal of bridging the gap between practice-based public health and public health academia.

    Originally, the AHD was an idea on paper, but in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Commonwealth decided it needed to mobilize the Consortium to scale the response to the virus. The Commonwealth was also particularly concerned about equity and making sure that different populations were having their needs met—a principle taught in the MCPHS public health programs.

    As the planning process ramped up, volunteers from the AHD were asked to step up and lead the effort. Dr. Nate Horwitz-Willis, DrPH, MPH, MPA, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Coordinator of Public Health Practice at MCPHS, responded to the call. “Yes,” he said, “we teach this at MCPHS, and I believe our students are already trained. We can handle this. We’re already teaching this; we are already providing the interprofessional education that’s needed for our students to work as a team with other healthcare providers. It’s literally codified into our mission; I know that our students are ready. That’s why I stood up.”

    In addition to the advisory role the AHD was providing, the team launched the Academic Public Health Volunteers Consortium, which is the volunteer group of students that are being recruited to conduct contact tracing. The volunteer recruitment effort began, and within 24 hours, a large number of students had signed up from the consortium schools. By March 31, 2020, people had been put in different places and contact tracing had been implemented full force. Communications had been opened with 30 local health departments and 250 students, including 60 MCPHS public health students, have been placed as of April 3, 2020. The goal is to have up to 500 students on placed by the middle of April.

    Student volunteers require explicit preparation. “This type of pathogen requires very specific training,” says Dr. Horwitz-Willis. “Are they asking the right questions? The public health students will ask the right questions, because they have been trained in their programs. We’ll bring back their data to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and figure out how we need to refine our strategy to provide social services throughout this pandemic.”

    “Viruses can be extremely tricky,” notes Dr. Horwitz-Willis. “To prepare our volunteers, we’ll be implementing specific public health modules that teach them how to use existing computer technology, like AI, machine learning, and algorithm development, to be effective epidemiologists. The fallout from this pandemic might extend five years, or even up to a decade. That’s how serious a respiratory pathogen can be.”

    The learnings from this contact tracing program will lead to important changes to the MCPHS public health programs, explains Dr. Horwitz-Willis. “We will need to adjust our public health curriculum to incorporate what we’re finding out from this pandemic, and none of our community health assessments currently do that. It has exposed the gap in our knowledge; but with the School of Healthcare Business, we’re going to be the first university to incorporate the business aspects of public health with the community health aspects. For instance, we will be able to learn how businesses need to move to protect assets, what actions they need to take prior to an epidemic or pandemic or even just a blip associated with a disease. We’ll be able to teach our students how to work not only in a community health, but also in a business environment.”

    Interested in pursuing a career in public health? Learn more about public health degrees at MCPHS.