COVID-19 contact-tracing team of ASU students closes nearly 15K cases in 6 months

December 17, 2020

A Maricopa County COVID-19 case investigative team consisting of Arizona State University students, assisted by faculty and staff from the ASU School of Social Work in Tucson, has closed nearly 15,000 cases since June through extensive interviews and contact tracing.

Effective contact tracing involves identifying infected individuals and anyone with whom they’ve been in contact, then working with those people to halt further spread of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. coronavirus, illustration Illustration of coronavirus. Download Full Image

School of Social Work faculty and staff have partnered with ASU’s Student Outbreak Response Team to support Maricopa County’s COVID-19 case investigation and contact-tracing efforts as the ASU COVID-19 Case Investigation Unit. 

“If an individual tests positive for COVID-19, the information is shared from the testing site to the county and state, so case investigations can begin,” said Laura Meyer, the unit’s program manager of staffing and team development. “Our team of volunteers and supervisor staff are working on behalf of the county to call all these positive cases in Maricopa to complete these case investigation interviews.”

Meyer said the questions the unit asks are fairly straightforward. They include inquiries about demographics, to figure out where the virus is spreading and who will be affected; symptoms and avenues of exposure; and whether or not the patient is currently working. 

They also ask infected individuals to identify people with whom they have been in contact, and if they’ve been to any events, said Mick Salik, a graduate research assistant with the case investigation unit. Salik is a second-year grad student in the Master of Social Work degree program, concentrating in policy and administration.

“Everything is confidential. We don’t share outside of the case investigation unit,” Salik said. “That’s just to protect the people on the other side.”

Turnaround times depend on the testing site and when results are handed to the county, but Meyer said the goal is to close out a case within two days.

As of Nov. 6, the case investigation unit has 14 supervisors and 183 active volunteers. Most of the volunteers have an affiliation with ASU or are from Arizona, though many come from across the country, according to Meyer. Many of the case investigators are actually ASU students who have taken this opportunity to get clinical or client exposure.

Meyer added that all volunteers go through a robust, 15-hour virtual training program and work 100% remotely. For example, Meyer is in Houston and said the other supervisors and volunteers are spread across the country on both coasts.

The only exception is a field team in Guadalupe, Arizona, an area which has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, according to Meyer. She said this team is doing work very similar to the case investigations. First, team members reach the patient by phone to limit exposure. They also conduct a needs-based assessment and provide specific resources to help those with any additional needs. Meyer said the field team also passes out supplies like masks and hand sanitizers in the community.

Meyer received her Master of Social Work degree in Tucson in May 2020 with a concentration in planning, administration and community development. In her own research, Meyer said she studies “how education tools can help doctors to communicate empathetically with their patients to improve connection and build rapport.” As the program manager, Meyer’s responsibilities include overseeing staff and volunteer training, including teaching volunteers how to show empathy to patients over the phone, in the same vein as her research.

Case investigations and contact tracing are nothing new. Meyer said they are practices that have been “established for a long time” and to her knowledge, case investigations and contact tracing played an integral role in stopping the spread of Ebola.

She says that knowing about contact tracing and participating in it are an essential part of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

The School of Social Work is a part of Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Written by Susan Wong of ASU Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions marketing communications. 

Sharon Manne Award continues to enable graduate students to pursue their own research projects

Awardees conducting research in addiction, cognition, pain management

December 17, 2020

Three Arizona State University Department of Psychology graduate students are the newest recipients of the Sharon Manne Award, a scholarship that provides seed funding to allow students to conduct independent research projects. The award funds research projects in health psychology, clinical psychology and behavioral neuroscience that address important and timely mental and physical health issues. The funded projects are separate from the work the graduate students do with their mentor, which gives the awardees the chance to begin pursuing their own research interests.

Sharon Manne is currently a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine and is the associate director of cancer prevention and control at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. She was a doctoral student in ASU’s clinical psychology program and was mentored by Alex Zautra and Irwin Sandler. She credits their mentoring as pivotal in her career and said she wanted to pay it forward in the form of a research scholarship each semester. Erin Mistretta, Victoria Bernaud, Jack Waddell The new recipients — Erin Mistretta, Victoria Bernaud and Jack Waddell — are all conducting psychological research in diverse areas such as chronic pain, memory and hormones, and addiction. Photos and video: Robert Ewing, ASU Department of Psychology Download Full Image

The new recipients — Jack Waddell, Erin Mistretta and Victoria Bernaud — are all conducting psychological research in diverse areas such as addiction, memory and hormones, and chronic pain.

Waddell, a third-year clinical psychology graduate student and RSA Memorial Award Winner in 2019, has been conducting research as part of the BARCA and Pathways of Risk Resilience labs, to discover how the context of where and when people drink alters how they respond to alcohol. His research typically is conducted in an in-person wet lab where they monitor drinking behavior in social environments but plans to extend his research into participants’ daily lives.

The Manne Award allowed Waddell to purchase a phone app to monitor with in-the-moment-data the addictive behavior in people who are consuming alcohol and cannabis. While the social environments have changed to a remote setting, this allows Waddell to research the interplay of impulsivity, cognition and their subjective experience while using alcohol and cannabis.

The addiction literature shows that co-use of alcohol and cannabis is associated with a higher risk of having negative alcohol consequences such as an alcohol use disorder long-term. Waddell is investigating to see the daily contexts for people who use both alcohol and cannabis to see whether they are more likely to drink more heavily than just alcohol users and what is causing heavier drinking days. He also wants to find out if these people also have a stronger, more positive association with alcohol use long-term to inform future interventions.

“Ecological momentary assessment is just very expensive to do, but without the Sharon Manne Award, I wouldn’t have the resources to do that,” said Waddell. “It is a huge asset to be able to collect this data that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”

Mistretta, a fourth-year clinical psychology graduate student in the Emotion Regulation and Health Lab, is interested in mindfulness and how it can contribute to chronic and acute pain management. Chronic pain is defined as any pain that is ongoing, even after the acute injury has subsided. This includes back pain, or persistent inflammation in the nervous system, which is typically moderated with pain medication.

The Manne Award allows her to find and fund participation in a large-scale research survey project to determine delay discounting and its effects in chronic pain management.

“This award allows me to investigate the idea of delay discounting in individuals with chronic pain. This measures the extent to which people value immediate versus long-term rewards and punishments. Would you prefer this many days of pain relief starting today, or even more days of pain relief, but starting in a month?” said Mistretta. “This is going to help us elucidate where we might go with prevention and intervention efforts.”

Bernaud, a fourth-year behavioral neuroscience graduate student in the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab, conducts research on reproductive hormone interactions in the brain and how it may impact memory and cognition. Bernaud also previously won the prestigious Society for Neuroscience Trainee Professional Development Award for her research on hormone therapy combinations and their impact on memory during menopause.

“During the menopause transition, there are a lot of different experiences that women can have, both in how menopause is initiated as well as the different indications that women have across that transitional time. One of the things that women can experience is inflammation, both peripherally and in the brain as well,” said Bernaud.

The Manne Award funds Bernaud’s additional research investigating inflammatory markers in the brain and how they relate to cognition and memory.  

“It feels really impactful to be able to be supported by someone who has a passion for the university and the Department of Psychology. It is so meaningful. It is wonderful that there is such breadth in what all of the students are doing who have received the award, but that we are all focused on answering these important health-related questions — I think it is really significant,” said Bernaud.

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology