Student Interviewers Build Capacity in Pennsylvania during COVID-19 Pandemic Response
Pennsylvania is the fifth most populous state in the country and sees a high volume of enteric disease cases and outbreaks. Ensuring that all affected persons are interviewed is challenging given the large volume of cases and dispersal of interviewing responsibilities over many jurisdictions within the state. This was especially true in 2020 when public health staff worked around the clock responding to COVID-19, in addition to their usual work responsibilities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, health departments around the country demonstrated the benefits of student workers (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/outbreaknetenhanced/success-stories/student-teams.html), and teams of students became instrumental during the pandemic to maintain daily work, allowing public health staff to focus more time on the COVID-19 response. Pennsylvania, for example, expanded the scope and responsibilities of an existing student team to meet the evolving needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Health recruited two student interviewers to join its enteric disease team to conduct three types of interviews: routine interviews, in-state outbreak interviews, and rapid interviews (or re-interviews) during CDC-led multistate outbreaks. Following an intensive virtual orientation that prepared the students to respond appropriately to a variety of situations, they conducted interviews during regular business hours as well as during the evening and on weekends. In previous years, Pennsylvania’s student interviewer team conducted interviews to support high-volume districts, and, by request, other jurisdictions; however, in 2020, the student interviewer team faced the challenging task of conducting all enteric interviews for additional jurisdictions.
Also, before 2020, student interviewers in Pennsylvania focused only on Campylobacter and Salmonella routine interviews, but they added 10 pathogens to their scope of work in 2020, including Listeria, STEC infections, and Shigella.
Additional diseases added to PA Student Team workload
- Vibriosis (incl. Cholera)
- Salmonella Typhi/Paratyphi infections
- Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) infections
The student interviewer team was able to adapt to each jurisdiction’s protocols, and the enteric disease team continued to review all completed interviews to ensure completeness and quality.
During 2020, the two student interviewers completed 588 interviews, approximately 17% of Pennsylvania’s total completed enteric interviews, significantly improving the state’s ability to continue solving foodborne outbreaks. Additionally, Pennsylvania completed 71% of its multistate outbreak interviews in 2020, up from 49% in 2016. These lengthy and time-intensive interviews helped solve high-profile outbreaks, such as an E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens and Salmonella illnesses associated with consumption of tomatoes and raw turkey products.
The benefits of student interviewers have been recognized by OutbreakNet Enhanced sites for years, but the added challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic caused jurisdictions, such as Pennsylvania, to utilize students to a degree not previously seen. The hard work of student interviewers continues to be a major component of the ongoing success of enteric disease outbreak investigations nationwide.