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Public Health Students Help Pima County Guide Schools During Pandemic

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Student interns from the Zuckerman College of Public Health have been working to help support the Pima County Health Department respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and two students focused on the effort to help K-12 schools resume instruction safely.

In the spring of 2020, public health students Catrina Caltagirone and Jessica Martinez were working on their undergraduate degree when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and they wanted to help. As students at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health (MEZCOPH) at the University of Arizona, they had learned about the ways that public health practice can help to stop the spread of disease. They also knew that they needed to complete an internship as part of their degree requirement. At the time, with COVID-19 sweeping the country, all “in-person” internships had been halted due to the risk, so whatever internship they could find had to be online. Fortunately, MEZCOPH already had a well-established relationship with the Pima County Health Department (PCHD) through the Academic Health Department Initiative under the leadership of Dr. Cecilia Rosales, Associate Dean of Community Engagement and Outreach. When PCHD needed help, the College was ready.

Jessica Martinez

Jessica Martinez

In fall of 2020, Catrina and Jessica were paired up with Brian Eller, COVID-Schools Liaison for PCHD. Eller was working with K-12 schools in Pima County to provide guidance around how to reopen, how to minimize risk among students, teachers and staff, and how to return to instruction as safely as possible during the pandemic. This was a big job, and Eller needed help. Catrina and Jessica were ready and they jumped in.

“Catrina and Jessica were both referred to help out with the response for schools. They’ve done an outstanding job, and their support has enabled our response and communications to be much more robust,” said Eller, “Catrina has been instrumental in compiling resources and organizing these in a way that schools can use effectively. Jessica has created several infographics and presentations that we have shared with other counties and even the state.”

For years, student interns from MEZCOPH have been working with Pima County Health Department to support the department’s public health outreach and initiatives. In the process, the students gain important real-world experience that compliments their public health courses and often informs the next steps in their career path. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this collaboration between PCHD and MEZCOPH has become even more valuable. Once COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, that collaboration went to a new level as PCHD worked to keep up with health concerns all over the county, and among many different populations. With the county staff stretched thin, the public health students provided crucial time and talent that helped PCHD in many ways.

The relationship with PCHD is coordinated through the Academic Health Department (AHD) at MEZCOPH, which has also established working agreements with health departments in Cochise County, Pinal County and Yuma County. Emily Waldron, MPH, Community Engagement and Outreach Coordinator, has been successfully building relationships between the AHD and many county health departments. In overview, Academic Health Departments provide a framework for mutually beneficial partnerships designed to enhance public health instruction, practice, research and workforce development throughout Arizona. The departments are structured differently in each county or tribal reservation and are designed to benefit the health needs of specific communities.

Catrina Caltagirone

Catrina Caltagirone

“The collaboration with MEZCOPH faculty, staff, and students and Pima County Health Department colleagues to support schools in Pima County is a wonderful example of the Academic Health Department in action and speaks to the strength of our relationship,” said Waldron, “It was critical that we already had a close working relationship, so that when the pandemic hit, our organizations had a structure in place to serve our community together.”

“With Emily to support our AHD efforts, we have expanded our collaboration from Pima County to other counties, and the relationship helps the counties at the same time that it enhances the education of our public health students, said Dr. Rosales, Associate Dean for Community Engagement, “these partnerships have made a big difference in our response to the pandemic in Arizona, and they also build our public health workforce so we can meet the next challenge.”

Julia Flannery, Organization Development Program Manager with PCHD, sees the significant advantages that the Academic Health Department partnership has brought to Pima County. “The Academic Health Department partnership enabled us to identify MEZCOPH faculty to participate in the Pima County incident command response team, and that has helped make our response more effective. Faculty and staff from the university worked closely with PCHD staff in the response and decision-making process, and student interns helped to implement the response,” said Flannery, “The scope of the response required significant community engagement, which we accomplished through the expanded connections of this partnership. A good example of that partnership can be found in the plans and guidance we collaboratively created for the safe return to hybrid instruction at public, private, and charter schools in the County.”

To support a safe return to instruction for Pima County schools, Jessica Martinez worked on infographics and Powerpoint presentations that provided guidance to understand Close Contact, COVID-19 Testing Types, prevention protocols, and other topics related to school reopening. “It meant a lot to be able to help with COVID response in our region, and I learned a lot in the process,” said Martinez, “I’m passionate about public health and in this internship, I saw public health in action.”

Catrina Caltagirone conducted research on a range of topics for schools, such as guidelines for sports administrators, the pros and cons for hybrid school models (in-person instruction combined with online instruction), and household quarantine guidelines. She also helped to organize a Webinar series from the American Public Health Association given by Caitlin Rivers, Senior Scholar and Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This was an amazing opportunity and I’m so glad I was able to be a part of the COVID response for schools in Pima County, I felt like I was making a difference in the health of our community,” said Caltagirone.

Both students provided impressive support for PCHD staff at a time when the need for school guidance was crucial, and the timelines were tight. “We so much appreciate the help that Catrina and Jessica provided, and it could not have come at a better time,” said Brian Eller, “we’re lucky to have our relationship with the College of Public Health that enables us to work with such bright, talented students.”

The opportunity for MEZCOPH students to participate in the public health response to COVID-19 in Arizona has been a real benefit for PCHD and for the students, who were able to use knowledge and skills to help our communities. The stories of Catrina and Jessica are just one example of the many ways that faculty and students have risen to the challenge in our region and our state as we navigate the pandemic and work to support the health of our diverse communities here in Southern Arizona. It is also a great example of how the Academic Health Department at MEZCOPH continues to support the health of communities in Arizona. Mask Up, Bear Down!

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