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MPH alums are on the front line of the pandemic battle

Graduates of the Master of Public Health degree program in the College of Applied Health Sciences are finding themselves on the front line in the battle against COVID-19. And thanks to their University of Illinois education, they are better-equipped to handle a pandemic for which few could have been prepared.

Ken Borkowski, a 2012 MPH graduate, is working for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, conducting contact tracing with known cases of COVID-19 within the Metro-Detroit area. He credits his ability to succeed in the job in part because of what he learned in the MPH program.

Going back to the basics of EPI 101, it kind of goes back to how this disease moves, and collecting all the information that's necessary to give us accurate models of how things are going to look and progress, and what do we need to do to inform the public-health work that we do here in Michigan.”

Borkowski’s job involves calling people dealing with COVID-19—or their family members if the patient is too ill—and collecting information.

Some of the key things that we're looking at now is onset date of symptoms, as well as have people been able to quarantine and then did they go to any sort of high-risk areas such as nursing homes, long-term-care facilities, childhood daycare centers, and so on.”

Teresa Castaneda, who graduated from the MPH program in 2019, has a similar job as a communicable disease investigator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, and also gives credit to her Illinois experience.

“The (epidemiology) knowledge and biostatistics prepared us for how a pandemic is going to come in waves, how we can track cases. There’s really no way to prepare for this, but just knowing the science and the (epidemiology) behind it really helps,” she said.

Castaneda started at CUPHD as a case manager for HIV patients, and was working with a communicable diseases investigator for routine communicable disease cases.

“I assist her when we have someone who tests positive for e-coli or salmonella, or hepatitis B or C, so I’m used to doing that type of investigation.” But she wasn’t surprised when the pandemic hit, or by getting pulled into that type of investigation.

“I’ve been involved in these conversations since right around Christmastime,” she said. “We’ve been having ‘When-it-comes-to-Champaign-County conversations,’ not ‘If-it-comes-to-Champaign-County conversations.”’

Derrius Carter is also a 2019 MPH grad and working for CUPHD in contact tracing and as a public information officer. Part of his job is akin to what Borkowski and Castaneda are doing, but Carter also has a public-facing role.

“What we do is create and provide guidance,” Carter said. “How to grocery shop, how long people should stay home.” Like Castaneda, Carter’s background was more involved with HIV and other infectious disease.

“But we have to be mindful about how all the variables intersect, and create avenues in which we can educate people about both HIV and COVID-19.”

One of Carter’s task is engaging in community-based risk reduction.

“Like using dating apps,” he said. “Just because COVID-19 is around, it doesn’t mean people aren’t being sexually active; so talking about how to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19, in addition to contracting HIV.”

Like Borkowski and Castaneda, Carter credits his MPH education for getting him ready as he could be.

“We had some classes that touched on emergency preparedness, but I don’t think anybody can prepare you for doing the work,” he said. “Moreso learning the different mechanisms to respond. But when you’re actually in it, it’s a little bit different.”

One thing the MPH alums agree on is that their knowledge and healthcare experience have caused them to approach their personal lives with a high degree of COVID-19-related care.

“Because I take this very seriously, I have not been in a grocery store in so long,” Carter said. “I just feel like it makes the most sense. Limiting my risk. I haven’t been to the gym in quite some time. I knew gyms weren’t practicing social distancing.”

Castaneda also tries to limit her time outside.

“Definitely going less frequently (to the grocery store),” she said. “My husband and I, one of us goes once a week. I pretty much go to work, and go to the store once a week.”

The MPH alums are heeding their own advice, but they are most concerned that some people are listening to advice from less-reputable sources.

“Misinformation is most alarming for me,” Carter said. “I’ve gotten calls from people asking, ‘Oh, I can hold my breath for a minute. Does that mean I don’t have COVID-19?’ And I’ve gotten calls asking if a specific demographic is immune.

“And that’s alarming to me because then it means people aren’t taking it as seriously. (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Dr. (Anthony) Fauci has been continuously been on a media campaign to spread information about COVID-19, but it’s Facebook articles that people are adhering to, and not his guidance.”

Castaneda agreed.

“The public’s response … I didn’t expect the craziness.”

The Illinois graduates remain hopeful the crisis can end in the upcoming months, but are imploring people to follow state and federal guidelines.

“Pandemics come in waves, and we see that historically,” Castaneda said. “So I don’t think when we get to the end of the downturn of this one, that will be the end of COVID-19, but social distancing and washing your hands are the best things you can do for yourselves.

“Look at the amount of flu outbreaks we have every year, and think about what social distancing and hand-washing could do to those. I do hope in a couple of months we will return to some normalcy,” she said.

“My advice for anybody who wants good information is follow your local health department or the state, we always have the best stuff.”

Now engaged in the worst pandemic since the outbreak of H1N1 in 2009, Michigan-native Borkowski is grateful for what he learned at Illinois.

“There's been times where people that ask me, ‘Do you regret going out of state for school and doing your degree elsewhere and so on? And given everything that my schooling has led me to and got me into the field that I'm in and working in the job that I'm currently working, it was all well worth it. I definitely appreciate knowing that I have such a profound impact on the community that I'm trying to help and serve.”

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