The Student Epidemic Intelligence Society (SEIS) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health provides volunteer public health support to health departments and other public health entities during infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and other public health emergencies. Members in the organization attend events, trainings, and educational opportunities that help better prepare them to be part of the public health response workforce. SEIS participants engage in service opportunities within the Houston community and beyond, as well as respond to volunteer calls to be involved in supervised public health response.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, SEIS members has been working with four health departments in the Houston area, as well as starting work with the San Antonio Metro Health District. In Houston, volunteers are working with Fort Bend Health and Human Services, Harris County Public Health, the Houston Health Department, and the Department of State Health Services.
“We’re very proud of the work our students are doing. This is an unprecedented event, and as public health students, they are more aware than most of the risks associated with volunteering under the current circumstances,” said Susan Tortolero Emery, PhD, senior associate dean for academic and research affairs at School of Public Health and holds the Allan King Professorship in Public Health. “The fact that they have coordinated their efforts, been intentional about what activities they undertake, and gone to extreme lengths to keep themselves and each other safe speaks to their professional expertise and maturity.”
David Kronenberger, president of SEIS and Epidemiology and Disease Control graduate assistant at UTHealth School of Public Health, and other student volunteers have been working in different capacities within these health departments – from answering phone banks for providers and case reports to contact tracing and investigations, and helping with making calls to check in on individuals who have been confirmed positive for COVID-19.
“This has been a time full of rapid change and confusion, but also a lot of unexpected success,” said Kronenberger. “As the president of a club dedicated to providing surge capacity to public health departments during times of crisis, this was clearly going to be a time involving a lot of work. I have been happy to see our officer group rally in addition to an overwhelming response from students coming onboard to help; even students from other schools such as Baylor College of Medicine and Texas A&M University.”
The students are working with professors at UTHealth to recruit students to help with data analysis on projects related to COVID-19 using open source databases and promoting job openings at local health departments for temporary work during this pandemic.
“This crisis has created some unexpected changes in other areas of my life,” said Kronenberger. “With help from my thesis advisor I have shifted my original thesis for this semester since all work has had to stop in the lab. I am now developing an alternative thesis involving work on COVID-19.”
Kronenberger had to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances after starting a new job.
“I had also started at Harris County Public Health as an epidemiologist along with several other students, but had to leave suddenly when I came down with a fever and had to get tested for COVID-19 as a precaution,” said Kronenberger. “I was placed on quarantine for 17 days waiting on the results of my test to be posted to an online portal before I could return to work. However, through all these hurdles, I am proud of the response of our public health professionals and students. I remain inspired by this experience and know that we are capable of conquering the many remaining challenges in public health.”
Kronenberger, along with other student volunteers, are providing much needed support to local health departments to do work that would otherwise burden public health professionals at these departments and prevent them from being able to focus on more essential aspects of their jobs. With their dedication, more than 100 student volunteers are helping to improve the speed and effectiveness of the community’s public health response, while learning essential skills that will better prepare them to help combat any future public health crisis.