Social Work Month award recipient oversaw contact tracing of COVID-19 cases

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March 21, 2022

The success of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic depends on the minds, hands and hearts of thousands of people in a wide range of fields, from medicine and public health to public affairs and social work.

An important part of the battle over the past two years involves case investigation and contact tracing – public health tools that involve identifying those infected and those with whom they have been in contact, with the aim of prevent new infections and save lives.

Laura Mayer. Photo courtesy of Laura Meyer
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A recent graduate of Arizona State University will be honored this month for her role in this valuable effort.

Laura Meyer joined ASU’s COVID-19 Case Investigation and Community Response Team in June 2020 as a founding member. Team students and staff provide peak support to the Maricopa County Public Health Department by interviewing cases or people who test positive for the novel coronavirus.

Meyer will receive the School of Social Work’s Early Career Achievement Award for his efforts in supervising members of this team, which investigated and closed more than 80,000 positive cases in Maricopa County, during the monthly awards show. of social work on March 25.

Meyer earned a master’s degree in social work from ASU in May 2020 and is currently studying for a doctorate at the University of Colorado. She was first hired as a program manager responsible for overseeing the training and supervision of student volunteers and staff, including several students from the School of Social Work. Meyer said her previous experience as a staff member at a crisis hotline in Colorado and the research and training in empathic communication as part of her master’s thesis prepared her for this role.

Epidemiologist Megan Jehn, associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and principal investigator of the response team, and School of Social Work professor Michael Shafer, who was the chair of the committee de Meyer and one of her professors while studying in Tucson, recruited her to help lead the response team.

“Our main job is to call people who test positive and ask them what their symptoms are, how they are doing, if they need any advice,” Meyer said. “We are also soliciting contacts, (people with) who they have been around who may have been exposed to COVID.”

Emotions sometimes emerged during conversations

Meyer taught team members how to conduct interviews, explain public health advice and show empathy in difficult times. Sometimes the conversations evoked deep feelings.

“With COVID, it’s more than just a disease; it’s very emotional and scary for people,” she said of the cases the team members investigated. “You don’t just call people to ask about their symptoms. You also experience their emotions. COVID has played a much bigger role in people’s lives than we anticipated.

Searching for contracts is an inexact science, she said, but she believes it has helped greatly in combating COVID-19.

“It’s hard to say what role we played, but we made a big contribution,” she said. “We closed 80,000 cases for the county, which was a pretty big breach.”

The interns included public health and social work students who now know what to do if another outbreak or pandemic occurs, she said.

“Watching students take the opportunity to be a case investigator has been truly inspiring.” she says.

Supporting the development of the future public health workforce is one of Meyer’s proudest accomplishments.

“A passion for empathy and social justice”

In her current role, as a research specialist on the same team, she is working to disseminate the knowledge the team has gained in the first two years of the pandemic for future analysis and application.

Jehn and Shafer are “just powerful, incredibly supportive people to work with,” Meyer said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without their encouragement.” Shafer worked with Jehn for the first 10 months of the project to help build the team.

Shafer said “Meyer’s passion for empathy and social justice was evident in his leadership role as ASU provided critical support to the efforts of the Maricopa County Public Health Department to manage the COVID-19 outbreak since its onset. Bringing a social work perspective with a team of public health colleagues, Laura helped focus the team’s efforts on reaching underserved and vulnerable communities.

Meyer said students interested in careers in social work, public health or community health are indispensable in contact tracing if they have the will to do well.

“One thing I’ve learned from this job is that every phone call and every interaction matters,” she said. “You are building a stronger society and a stronger public health response for the future. I could not have imagined my job or this opportunity, but I have learned that it is always necessary to do so.

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