Guiding us through the Pandemic

Guiding us through the Pandemic

A year ago, her current job didn’t even exist. Now, at the age of 26 and set to earn her Master of Public Health in December, she’s arguably one of the most important people on campus. Meet Erin Duff, ’16, Southern’s COVID-19 coordinator.

Erin Duff
Erin Duff

Duff’s job responsibilities cover a lot of territory: “First and foremost, is the randomized testing that we do on campus,” says Duff, who coordinates COVID-19 testing of 450 to 500 students a week. She also assists with Southern’s contact tracing program and on-campus quarantine and isolation efforts — and educates the Southern community on COVID-19 and how best to prevent the disease.  

About testing: It takes place in Engelman Hall in the grab-and-go store/dining area, affectionately known as the Bagel Wagon before COVID. (It’s temporarily closed for dining, etc.) Duff explains that the site was chosen to meet guidelines: adequate airflow, a separate entrance and exit, no carpeting, and a large enough space for people to wait safely. “Our student wait time is no more than five minutes, which is really great. . . . When I talk with other schools, their wait can be up to 45 minutes,” says Duff. In fall 2020 prior to the move to remote learning, testing was done Mondays and Thursdays (11 a.m. – 5 p.m.) and Fridays ( 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.).  Results were available in about two days, as of early November.

Among those tested are: student-athletes, on-campus residents, and students who are in clinical placements interacting with clients/patients — for example, nursing and communications disorders majors. The university also tests residence hall directors, athletics staff, and nursing staff. As residential students prepared to leave for the Thanksgiving break, exit testing also was available to those who hadn’t been slated for screening within the previous two weeks.

Every day is different: “Testing is the one thing I can count on to be consistent,” says Duff, who begins the day by sorting through emails. “Students and staff fill out a COVID report if they have been exposed or have tested COVID positive. The first thing I do is look for those in my email. That is my priority,” she says. She calls these students, staff and/or faculty members, gathers information, and passes it along to Southern’s team of contact tracers.

“And then things just happen,” says Duff, of her shifting responsibilities. A day will likely include: following up with Southern Health Services to learn the results of symptomatic students who went in for testing; working with Residence Life to arrange on-campus quarantine housing for students waiting for test results to come back; and reaching out to students, faculty, and staff to promote awareness of COVID and how to best protect oneself.

Staying connected: Duff meets virtually with the Connecticut Department of Public Health once or twice a week, along with representatives from all of the state’s colleges/universities. She also connects virtually with COVID-19 coordinators from Southern’s sister universities in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system (Central, Eastern, and Western). “We have many similarities, so it’s helpful to connect on a more personal level to share ideas,” she says.

People want to know: Duff receives 15 – 30 questions a day about COVID-19 from the Southern community, including students, parents, faculty, and staff.

The most common question:  Relates to the definition of — or a misunderstanding of —  the phrase “close contact.” It’s an important consideration, notes Duff: “If someone tests positive, we deem who were close contacts to that person. We put those close contacts into quarantine.”

Southern follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) definition of a close contact: “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, starting from two days before illness onset or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to test specimen collection.”  Duff echoes the CDC in noting that extended contact and extremely close contact, such as kissing, should also be considered.

Another big question: The difference between quarantine and isolation. Duff explains: “Someone is in isolation if they are sick —  COVID-19 positive. They have to be in isolation for a minimum of 10 days. They can come out of isolation when they’ve gone 24 hours without having a fever and their symptoms have significantly subsided. I say significantly rather than completely. [For example,] some people who loose their sense of taste or smell, don’t get that back for months, unfortunately, but are not contagious.

In contrast, quarantine is for those who are deemed close contacts. “They are not technically sick, but have been significantly exposed to the virus and could potentially be carrying it,” says Duff. The quarantine period is 14 days, with students typically tested eight – 10 days into their quarantine. Students are monitored each day. “If they develop symptoms – the main ones being shortness of breath, fever, loss of taste or smell at this point — we want to get them tested sooner, so that we can put them in isolation,” says Duff.

Three great moves Southern’s made from a public health standpoint, according to Duff: 1) Creating and using exceptional health-promotion signage throughout campus. “You can tell a lot of time, effort, and money went into promoting all of the best ways possible to protect yourself,” she says. 2) Requiring masks inside – and outside, when social distancing isn’t possible. Duff comments: “I like the outside piece. We’ve set the standard: if you are at Southern, you are wearing a mask, which makes is super easy for people to understand. There is no gray area.” 3) Creating the COVID-19 coordinator position.  “That is pretty telling of the work we are trying to do. [The university administration] is making an honest effort, doing the best they can in the situation we are in — even with budget challenges. It doesn’t matter what it takes, we are going to put our students first,” says Duff.

The team: Duff works closely with Dr. Diane Morgenthaler, director of health services; Emily Rosenthal, wellness coordinator; Tracy Tyree, vice president for student affairs; Robert DeMezzo, ’99, MBA ’07, director of residence life; and Jules Tetreault, dean of student affairs. A team of six Southern graduate students also work with Rosenthal, who is the lead contact tracer. “For most, it is their internship, either for their Master of Social Work or Master of Public Health. They complete a training run by the state Department of Public Health that prepares them to be contact tracers,” says Duff.

Why public health: Duff, who’d previously worked at a camp for those with special needs, came to Southern to major in special education. But an elective taken in her sophomore year — Wellness 101 taught by Lisa Seely, ’03, M.P.H. ’06 — changed all that. Noting Duff’s talent for the subject, Seely encouraged her to consider public health as a major. “It ended up being the best decision I ever made,” says Duff of changing her major. “Some students are not fans of taking [required] electives. But doing so changed the course of my life.”

How her education prepared Duff for this role: Duff loved her undergraduate courses, particularly the close contact she had with faculty, which inspired her to enroll in the graduate program at Southern. “The health promotions courses have helped significantly. What I am most drawn to about public health is the prevention piece,” says Duff.

The biggest challenge: “That every day is different and the unknown. [For example,] if I am on the phone with someone who tested positive, we don’t [initially] know how many close contacts they’ve had. And as much as we are promoting social distancing and all of the safety precautions — wearing masks, washing your hands —  I can’t control everyone. So, I have to rely on what we are doing in terms of education and trying our best to not only keep our numbers low but also to keep everyone safe,” says Duff.

Most rewarding part of the job: “Knowing that I am helping to make Southern a safer place — whether I am answering a question or letting someone know that they are a close contact or helping the student who is COVID-19 positive. Not everyone sees the day-to-day work. But I know how much effort is being put in by our team. We truly, genuinely care – and that motivates me to keep going even when the days are long,” says Duff.

Closing thoughts: “The first thing I would say is I am hopeful for our future. I know we all crave normalcy. We want things to go back to the way they were — and eventually they will. But we need everyone’s help with that. . . . We are literally in this together. We need to continue social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing our masks at all times. That’s the only way they we are really going to be able to combat the virus at this time and come out stronger,” says Duff