As COVID-19 cases ticked up perilously over the holidays, the Kern County Public Health Services Department had a secret weapon at its disposal: senior nursing students at Cal State Bakersfield on winter break.
The county hired 44 of these students as full-time temporary employees, known as junior staff nurses, to help them manage a dizzying load of contact tracing during the heavy surge.
"It was absolutely the best timing you could ask for," said Brynn Carrigan, assistant director of Kern County Public Health Services. "I don’t know how we could have kept up without our students."
If 1,000 new cases were reported on a given day — and that wasn't unusual many days — these contact tracers would, on average, make contact with the patient and four contacts for every case, totaling about 5,000 calls.
On those heavy days, they might receive some assistance from other health department employees. However, since December these students have been making the bulk of the calls to Kern residents who have tested positive or come into contact with someone who has. The center of operations, COVID-19 Contact Tracing Center, is Building One at the Kern County Fairgrounds, where the employees sit at socially distanced stations.
"It was definitely an opportunity to reach out to our community in a time of need," said Erica Detweiler, one of the nursing students.
She and others are tasked with educating community members during what can be a fraught moment: the phone call that they or someone they've spent time with has recently been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
During a contact tracing call, nurses offer information about isolating or quarantining, how to keep family members safe and what community resources are available.
Detweiler said patients sometimes don't have the information they need or they're misinformed. Some are worried.
"We can alleviate some of those fears," Detweiler said.
Carrigan said that what makes CSUB student nurses especially useful is that they can handle case investigation, which requires medical training, on top of contact tracing, which doesn't. This means they can manage an individual's entire case from figuring out who their affected contacts are to letting them know when it is a safe time to be released from isolation.
That training is why Jocelyne Ceballos, a fellow CSUB nursing student, simply felt like working for the health department was a part of her duty.
"It was definitely an opportunity to reach out to our community in a time of need," Ceballos said.
Janie Ashley, assistant professor in the nursing department at CSUB, said that the county health department and the university have a long partnership. Ashley, like many other faculty, used to work for the department.
Every semester, nursing students go to work for Public Health Services as a part of their typical nursing training, Ashley said.
"We have this great connection with CSUB," Carrigan said. "We’re helping to train these up-and-coming lifesaving nurses."
The student nurses' typical training during the semester was one day each week. Not all of the work they were doing was COVID-related. For instance, one day they might work with women who had high-risk pregnancies. But as the semester wore on, the student nurses were helping out more with COVID-19 efforts.
Ceballos and Detweiler particularly enjoyed their work at schools and libraries and community centers turned into testing sites in all corners of the county. They met people who never would have been able to be tested had they not had a mobile site.
"The community has been really thankful," Detweiler said. "People say thank you so much."
Most nurses enter the field thinking they'll work in a hospital, but the women say their experiences in the department have them and some of their classmates rethinking their plans when they graduate from their programs in May.
Detweiler said she still hopes for a position in a hospital, but it's made her think about dedicating some of her off-time to public health efforts. And Ceballos said it was never on her radar before — and now she's torn.
"I can see myself going into public health," she said.
Winter break ends next week, but many of the students are hoping to continue working with the health department — if not performing contact tracing, then with the mass vaccination clinics coming up. Ceballos said the pandemic isn't over, so she feels like the work just isn't done yet.
"I think most of us working here are going to try to continue through," Detweiler said. "We feel that it is our duty."