EHS staff hone COVID case investigation skills

It’s quite likely you’ve heard about “contact tracing” in the news or U-M emails about COVID-19. Did you know that F&O Environment, Health and Safety staff carry it out for the university community? 

Contact tracing is part of “case investigation,” which entails calling people who have tested positive to collect details about symptoms and exposure to others and to give guidance on how to isolate. 

“The term sounds daunting, like being put under a microscope,” says Epamenondas (Nonda) Mihas. “But we’re not out there to police them. Our main goals are to get the pertinent details and give them guidance to mitigate the spread of the disease. For the most part, they are appreciative and realize we are trying to support them.  Ultimately, the health, safety, and well-being of our students and surrounding community are the number one priorities.”

EHS contact investigators help minimize the spread of COVID-19 at U-M by tracing contacts and advising students and staff who have tested positive.

Nonda joined EHS in October to focus on food, swimming pool, and drinking water safety, but given the pressing need for case investigation during peak U-M caseloads at that time, he spent his time serving as a case investigator.

Nonda drew upon prior experience doing case investigation for Wayne County Public Health. By contrast, some EHS staff were new to case investigation and had to work together to learn the ropes. 

Adam Calisti normally focuses on occupational (worker) safety and said jumping into case investigation was “a challenging, unique experience. The days were long, but I felt it was a beneficial thing we were offering to the university to slow the spread of disease on campus.” 

Nonda and Adam say the two key skills of a good case investigator are understanding the science (of disease transmission and prevention) and communicating well. “People we call are concerned for their friends and family,” Adam said. “They have questions and they want to make sure they are doing things right and not spreading disease. So you need to be able to communicate effectively.”

“It’s also important to communicate well within the team,” Nonda emphasized. When they come across new questions or unique scenarios, they work through them as a team. In addition, when EHS brought on temporary case investigators to help with overwhelming caseloads, people like Nonda and Adam served as mentors to train the new investigators quickly. 

During winter term, Adam says the team felt “better prepared because of all the lessons we learned during the fall semester.”