Young COVID-19 Corps Staffers Connect with College Students

Relationship status: It’s complicated.

Influencing the behavior of college students—on and off campuses—is a challenge under the most normal of circumstances. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and you’ve got a much more challenging situation, as young adults may not be the most inclined to adhere to pleas for social distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures. That’s where CDC Foundation field workers like 24-year-old Gabe Trotz come into play. He has a sense of what resonates with college students, and he’s sharing that perspective with others.

“I try to spell it out for people who might not really understand the struggle college students are facing. They’re cut off from their friends, their entire way of life has been disrupted and they have no idea how to deal with this. There’s no ‘cheat sheet,’” explains Trotz, who graduated in 2018 and currently serves as a contact tracer team lead at the New York Department of Health. Trotz helps design training materials specifically geared toward communicating with college students, including mock interviews. In September, he participated in a virtual presentation, “Understanding College Students: Implications for Contact Tracing” as part of a required training series that had more than 700 attendees eager to learn how to better empower students to stay safe.

“We included concerns that would be unique to a college student,” Trotz said. “Such as, if they need to get food, how are they going to get food delivered to their dorm? Will it even be allowed in? Are there support systems for them on campus? What should they do if their friends are breaking quarantine, or if somebody’s bringing people into their environment that they're not really comfortable with?”

Jordan Mills, MPH

Gabe Trotz

McKenna Deaton

The COVID-19 death rate is lower among the young, but they can be silent carriers—and spreaders.

Trotz stressed the importance of being an active listener, avoiding the use of judgmental language, taking into account young people’s sense of invulnerability and shifting the conversation accordingly: “We're trying to keep your friends, your family, the people that matter to you safe. So the best thing that we can ask you to do is, help us keep them safe; help us keep you safe.”

As of mid-November, 43 percent of COVID-19 Corps public health staffers were 30 or under with the majority serving as contact tracers, case investigators and epidemiologists. Among them is 24-year-old Jordan Mills, MPH. She is serving as a case investigator with the Virginia Department of Health’s Blue Ridge Health District in Charlottesville—home to the University of Virginia, where students continue to have a choice of returning to campus or learning remotely. Many chose to return, and the campus saw early spikes in coronavirus cases. In response, the local health department created special teams to build rapport with student groups and tailor the outreach. Mills was assigned to work with student athletes and sororities and fraternities, since she had personal experience with college athletics and Greek life while attending rival Virginia Tech for undergraduate and graduate school.

Mills and her team get a ‘first look’ at messages that are going out to students, to make sure they align with CDC and health department guidelines. “Providing that education is the main thing,” she said, “to build that trust and rapport [with students] and then start building a plan” to protect themselves, their fellow students and the community at large. She talks to student athletes about protocols in the locker room, at practice, and with travel; and she relates ways to mitigate stress, connect virtually, and take advantage of the opportunity to focus on self and school.

“My concentration was in public health education, and that’s what I do every day. I feel like I’m educating every person I talk to—people who want to know how to go through isolation or what’s the best protocol. I’m providing education on how to keep themselves healthy and keep the people around them healthy.” She said her health department’s team approach is a “bright light” that can serve as a model for other health departments and campus communities.

I know the CDC guidelines. I get the emails. So it’s nice to be able to provide the latest factual information to the people around me ... It’s amazing to feel like, even as a college student, I can actually have an impact.

With an estimated 20 million students enrolled in more than 1,800 colleges and universities across the nation, having current and former college students involved in the public health corps is a strategy worth exploring as classes, campus life, and sporting events remain in a constant state of flux. The size of the institution, the level of testing, reopening plans, and transparency in reporting vary greatly, so health education is key—especially among peers.

For Iowa resident and college senior McKenna Deaton, the mitigation messages received and shared have personal and professional implications. The double major in biology and chemistry has applied for a master’s degree in public health—and she works part-time for the CDC Foundation as a contact tracer for the Siouxland District Health Department.

When conversations in the classroom veer off into misinformation or conspiracy theories about COVID-19, Deaton said she speaks up. “I know the CDC guidelines. I get the emails. So it’s nice to be able to provide the latest factual information to the people around me.”

Deaton said the experience with the CDC Foundation and Siouxland has reaffirmed her goal to be an epidemiologist. “It’s amazing to feel like, even as a college student, I can actually have an impact.”



This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement number NU38OT000288, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC Foundation’s support from CDC included full project funding of $45,939,536.86.

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