UH College of Medicine Now Training ‘Disease Detectives’ to Combat COVID-19

Free Online Contact Tracing and Case Identification Program Launches in Collaboration with City and County Health Departments

To reduce community spread of COVID-19, the University of Houston College of Medicine today launched a free contact tracing and case identification certificate program for UH students, faculty and staff in collaboration with the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health. The Epi Corps (Epidemiology Corps) program will prepare a new type of public health worker trained to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.

Contact tracing is a core public health strategy to combat COVID-19, along with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates and good hygiene practices. The disease detectives trained during the 12-hour online course could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to help COVID-19 patients recall everyone they’ve had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers could then notify these contacts of their potential exposure, providing education, support and information to understand their risk.

Over 100,000 trained contact tracers will be needed across the country to address COVID-19, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University. Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas calls for 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.

“Contact tracing, along with large-scale testing, is a critical component to reopening our state and to stimulate the economy, but the national and local public health infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this task alone,” said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine. “As a public university dedicated to serving the community, it’s incumbent upon us to step up and provide the necessary training so we can get through this crisis together.”

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered online for students, faculty and staff on the Blackboard digital learning platform with plans to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks. The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules.

The contact tracers-in-training will learn about COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality and more. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.  

Program organizer Bettina Beech, UH associate provost for planning and strategic initiatives and associate dean for research at the College of Medicine, said the training module will continually be updated as the crisis evolves to ensure the latest information is presented.

“We have been working tirelessly to curate training materials from top public health entities across the country to get the Epi Corps program up and running quickly, because time is of the essence,” said Beech, who has a master’s degree and doctorate in public health. “We’re grateful to be working with the city and county as contact tracing is a tried and true approach to dealing with public health crises. With no vaccine available right now, this will help get us through the crisis until a pharmaceutical solution is ready.”

The Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. The CDC warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

“Investing in contact tracing for COVID-19 will play a crucial role in flattening the curve in our region,” said Salma Khuwaja, a division manager in the Bureau of Epidemiology at the Houston Health Department. “The training offered by the University of Houston will become a significant asset in fighting the current pandemic and future disease outbreaks.”  

“The expansion of our contact tracing program is an important step forward in helping us understand the spread of COVID-19 in Harris County,” said, Dr. Dana Beckham, director of science, surveillance and technology for Harris County Public Health. “We are grateful that we have such amazing community partners, like the University of Houston, who will play a key role in this challenging, but informative process.”  

Faculty organizers at the College of Medicine hope the Epi Corps training program can be scaled statewide to increase its impact, even as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states. “We really do not have a good handle on how many people have been exposed or how many people are asymptomatic carriers, making contact tracing critically important,” said Beech.