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Students Collaborate with County Health Departments to Reach Rural Communities with COVID-19 Response

Public health students have been working with public health professionals in Cochise County, Graham County, Pinal County, and Yuma County to fight COVID-19 and support community health.


Over the past year as the country has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, so many communities have suffered. Here in Arizona, the health crisis has been especially difficulty for county health departments and the public health professionals who work for them. They have been on the front lines of responding to the pandemic. Often, the county health department staff are working in rural communities without adequate funding and personnel. They work long hours and do the best they can to guide people through the crisis.

The Academic Health Department (AHD) in the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health is an initiative under the leadership of Dr. Cecilia Rosales, Associate Dean of Community Engagement and Outreach, Phoenix Campus. Academic Health Departments are mutually beneficial partnerships between county and state health departments, and colleges of public health. The AHDs are designed to strengthen the links between public health practice, research, training, and service by leveraging existing partnerships and establishing opportunities for new collaborations.  The projects implemented through the AHDs are guided by the public health needs and priorities for each county.

In the midst of the pandemic, the college has coordinated with health departments in Cochise County, Graham County, Maricopa County, Pima County, Pinal County, and Yuma County to provide student interns who can support the public health services provided by the county.

“These partnerships mutually support the county health departments and the college with applied practice opportunities for our students and potential joint research, teaching and service opportunities for faculty and health department staff. They also provide amazing training for our students,” said Dr. Rosales, “Our students can apply what they have learned in the classroom, bring it back to the community where they grew up, see public health in action. They really make a difference. I’m so proud of what our AHD students have accomplished during the pandemic.”

Pull quote from Emily Waldron

Guided by Emily Waldron, MPH, community engagement and outreach coordinator for the AHD, collaborations with rural Arizona counties have proven especially beneficial during the COVID-19 crisis. The longstanding partnership with Pima County (Tucson) has previously drawn much of the attention. Now Waldron has been able to identify public health students, (and a few students from other colleges) who grew up in other Arizona counties (Cochise, Graham, Pinal, Yuma) and then connect them with the health departments in their home communities to provide support services during this difficult time. The result has been a big help for the counties, and a very rewarding experience for the undergraduate students.

“I’m just so inspired by our students, they’re amazing. And with AHD partnerships they get to work directly with public health professionals, many in the community where they grew up,” said Waldron, “They know these communities and now they can apply the skills learned in the classroom to collaborate with their local health department.”


Alicia M. Thompson, DrPH, MSW, Health Director at Cochise Health and Social Services

Cochise County Health and Social Services

The Cochise Health and Social Services Department (CHSSD) and the Zuckerman College of Public Health (COPH) began discussions about collaboration in early 2020 and the Academic Health Department was officially established in September 2020. 

Since then, in close coordination with Cochise County epidemiologist Martha Montano, several COPH students have supported the CHSSD. Early on, public health student Mark Wager helped to implement a contact tracing program to reach Cochise County residents who had been infected by COVID-19 or exposed. To reach farmworkers in the county, AHD student intern Cristina Gomez Padilla from the UArizona College of Fine Arts developed graphics to provide COVID-19 education specifically for the farmworker population. Cristina worked in close collaboration with CHSSD, Yuma County Health Department, Southeastern Arizona Health Education Center, and Compesinos Sin Fronteras.

Much of the work in Cochise County has been in collaboration with Alicia M. Thompson, DrPH, MSW, Health Director at Cochise Health and Social Services and an alumna from the Zuckerman College of Public Health. The collaboration includes infographics that students created to guide vaccine registration. “Cochise Health and Social Services is very grateful for the relationship we have with the College of Public Health,” said Dr. Thompson, “The student projects have helped us to gain valuable insights into the populations we serve and have helped us to create factsheets in both English and Spanish that we’ve distributed widely.  We especially appreciate the student help because we don’t have a graphic artist on staff!”

Another public health student, Shannon Storms, developed suicide prevention infographics targeted at three unique populations in Cochise County: Veterans, Youth, and the Elderly. Recently, student intern Robyn Stea worked with Craig Janiszewski, CHSS Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and Tammi-Jo Wilkens, CHSS Emergency Preparedness Specialist, to develop vaccine registration materials for vaccination sites in Cochise County. All of these projects have benefited the county and provided real-world public health experience for the students.


Kendra Claridge, ADH student intern with Graham County Health Department

Graham County Health Department

Graham County Health Department (GCHD) and the Zuckerman College of Public Health began discussing the formation of an Academic Health Department in September 2020 and the process is nearing completion. In the meantime, COPH students have been working with the GCHD on public health projects. AHD student interns Robyn Stea and Kendra Claridge are working with Kathy Grimes, Graham County Substance Abuse Director, and staff from the Arizona Center for Rural Health (CRH) to develop graphics and materials specifically for Graham County to provide guidance on how to administer Naloxone and address opioid use disorder.

"My experience collaborating with the Graham County Health Department staff during my internship has allowed me to learn firsthand what it is like to work in the field of public health,” said Kendra Claridge, “Now I know that I want to be a part of the public health community. The experience has expanded my education in a way that would not have been possible if I were just taking regular classes. And it has enabled me to build connections with people in the public health field."

At the same time, COPH faculty Dr. Velia Nuno has provided resources for Rosa Contreras, Graham County Health Department Program Coordinator, to support the formation of a Youth Mental Health Collaborative in Graham County. Public health student intern Kendra Claridge has provided outstanding support for the county during this process, taking notes at monthly collaborative meetings and conducting literature reviews to inform the process.

“It has been a blessing to work with MEZCOPH students, faculty, and staff. The guidance and resources they’ve provided have taken our work to the next level,” said Contreras, “Their help has been instrumental in our efforts to address mental health challenges in Graham County. Kendra [Claridge] and Emily [Waldron] have been great assets to our community and it has been an honor in working them!”


Pinal County Public Health District

Pinal County Public Health District (PCPHD) and the Zuckerman College of Public Health established an Academic Health Department in October 2020, and several projects have followed.  All the projects were closely coordinated with Marianna Casal, MD, MPH, MBA, who serves as the IDES Division Manager with Pinal County Health Department (she’s also a MEZCOPH alumna!).

“In Pinal County we believe that the most important thing about this collaboration is the interaction with students and academics from the university,” said Mariana Casal, “At the student level, it provides them with an enriching experience of collaboration and teamwork, they’re applying what they learned to the real world and they take pride in completing projects that help the community. The academic health department status provides invaluable support from the public health faculty also, so the projects are based on solid scientific knowledge."

Working with COPH faculty Kelly Reynolds, PhD, and Leila Barazza, JD, MPH, as well as staff from PCPHD, student interns Jessica Martinez and Jassmin Castro designed materials for the Pinal County COVID-19 Communications Toolkit. In addition, AHD student interns Erin Kenny and Aiden Grijalva, in collaboration with Pinal County Health District, developed a webinar on COVID-19 mitigation strategies for schools and presented it to teachers, parents and schools administrators in Pinal County.

Erin Kenny and Aiden Grijalva, ADH student interns with Pinal County Health District

The internships benefit the county, and at the same time provides outstanding work experience for the students. "My experience as an intern with Pinal County has been so amazing,” said student Aiden Grijalva, “It has given me great insight into the needs of different communities, and how different health departments communicate and take charge, especially during COVID-19. Being included in projects and sharing ideas has given me the opportunity to meet new people and use my critical thinking skills!"


Diana Gomez, Director, Yuma County Public Health Services District

Yuma County Public Health Services District

Yuma County Public Health Services District (YCPHSD) and the Zuckerman College of Public Health are in the process of establishing an Academic Health Department for collaboration. Meanwhile, collaboration is already underway on several projects. Diana Gomez, director of the Yuma County Public Health Services District, has support and guided the partnership.

"The public health students play a critical role in our community education and outreach work. They come from this community, they understand the challenges," said Gomez, "they support us, we learn from each other, and together we're reaching people, improving the health of the community."

In Fall 2020, public health student intern Esmeralda Chavez created infographics about COVID-19 specifically for farmworkers. This is part of an ongoing collaborative effort to support and promote farmworker health and safety. Esmeralda also collaborated with YCPHSD to design materials for a county-wide flu shot campaign for essential workers in Yuma County. Gomez was able to hire Esmerelda and another MEZCOPH graduate, Priscilla Ruedas, to work for the YCPHSD after they graduated.

In addition, public health student intern Jessica Martinez brought together staff from Yuma County Health District, Cochise Health and Social Services, and Maricopa County Health Department to discuss specific COVID-19 vaccination concerns among the farmworker community. As result of the health department’s input, Jessica developed a communication graphic that debunked vaccination myths and was designed to reach the farmworker community specifically.


A Successful Model for Public Health Education

Student internships are an integral component of the Academic Health Department.  “Engaging students from the local community is critical. The students bring a deep understanding of the health priorities in their home community to the internship, said AHD Coordinator Emily Waldron, “They also bring a diversity of skills like graphic design, public health knowledge, and often they are fluent in Spanish. It is amazing how the students apply their skills to support the specific priorities of each county health department.”

Waldron and her student interns are committed to sharing the success of the AHD internship with other colleges and universities.  Sophia Maytorena, Psychological Science and Spanish Linguistics (double major) student is collaborating with Waldron to write an academic article on MEZCOPH’s AHD internship program. The article details how the AHD internship model benefits students, health departments, and the local community by fostering opportunities for cross-discipline academic partnerships, offering a range of student skills to community partners.

“If anything, the internship has taught me that regardless of major or background, anyone can become involved in bettering the health of our community,” Maytorena shared.

Looking Ahead

The collaborative experience between students and public health professionals has been positive for everyone involved, and it happened during the most widespread and devastating pandemic in more than a hundred years. Moving forward, the AHD will build on its success, strengthen and expand the partnerships, and seek to engage the next generation of students from those Arizona counties with public health by demonstrating the vital role that public health programs play in communities across Arizona.

“This has been a very challenging year, and our students have risen to that challenge. Emily has done an amazing job of coordinating the AHD partnerships, supporting our students, fostering our existing ties to local health departments, and building new relationships that will benefit these communities into the future,” says Dr. Rosales, “We’re really fortunate to have such dedicated students and public health professionals in Arizona. It should give us all hope for the future.”

The University of Arizona red triangle graphic