UMass Amherst Volunteers Aiding Commonwealth’s Public Health Response to COVID-19

Students help fill gaps in health care and public health needs
Jake Gramstorff
Jake Gramstorff

AMHERST, Mass. – The academic year is over, but a cluster of University of Massachusetts Amherst students, led by faculty and staff, remains active in ongoing COVID-19 response efforts.

From the realms of public health and health sciences, nursing and natural sciences, among other schools and departments, a UMass Amherst contingent is finding ways to serve their community during the pandemic – and sometimes being honored for their extraordinary work. For example, nursing Ph.D. student Ellen Smithline, a longtime emergency-care nurse, recently made the top of Johnson & Johnson’s list of “10 Nurses Pioneering Innovative COVID-19 Solutions.”

Smithline not only contributed to the design of a fast-track face shield for health care workers in a multidisciplinary UMass Amherst project, but also has helped set up and manage COVID-19 medical care tents in Springfield to screen homeless people and provide shelter to those who may be infected and need to be isolated.

Two UMass Amherst ROTC cadets – psychology major Jake Gramstorff and kinesiology major Jacob Goulet – were called up to serve as National Guard medics at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, which has been hard hit by COVID-19. For weeks, both students have been providing direct care to veterans living in the home, among other duties. “Hearing the stories from these amazing men and women and their incredible lives of service inspires me every day,” says Gramstorff, calling the experience “one of the most rewarding of my life. It’s something I will always remember and take pride in.”

Similarly, Goulet says providing care to veterans in their time of great need “has truly been both humbling and rewarding.” It has “solidified my goal of attending PA [physician assistant] school and choosing a path where I can help the community in the medical field.”

In the largest and earliest UMass Amherst volunteer initiative, some 215 graduate and undergraduate students in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences signed up to support dozens of local public health departments across the state as part of the Massachusetts Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps. That group, co-led by Aimee Gilbert Loinaz, Public Health and Health Sciences assistant director for internships and employer engagement, includes students from 12 Massachusetts schools and programs of public health.

Before the end of the spring semester, 66 UMass Amherst students had been assigned to carry out rapid-response tasks from their homes, including the first contact tracing and translation of critical COVID-19 materials into 11 languages.

Teah Snyder, a Ph.D. student in epidemiology, and Anika Obasiolu, a UMass Medical School student also pursuing a master’s in public health at UMass Amherst, were among the first volunteer team of contact tracers attempting to identify and monitor people who may have been exposed to a person infected with the novel coronavirus.

“The most challenging aspect of the job is getting people to answer the phone in the first place,” says Snyder, who hopes to work for the state as an infectious disease epidemiologist after completing her Ph.D. “Once you get someone on the phone, it takes a lot of empathy and patience to keep people on the phone long enough to get the information that you need.”

Obasiolu was “ecstatic” at the contact tracing opportunity. “This was my first dive into epidemiology, so there were a great deal of nerves initially,” she says. “However, the conversations went much more naturally than I could have imagined. Everyone was incredibly forthcoming with information and seemed quite happy to be of assistance, even while not feeling well.”

In the coming weeks and months, students will be assigned to other duties related to COVID-19, including health communications, wellness checks on vulnerable populations, health equity research and data analysis. After completing the initial phase, contract tracing is now being carried out at the state level by the Boston-based global health nonprofit Partners in Health.

“Nearly 100 other students are hoping to be deployed throughout the summer,” Gilbert Loinaz says. “We are a home-rule state, so every local public health department is different in what their needs are.” 

In another Public Health and Health Sciences effort, Karen Helfer, professor of communication disorders, looked for a way that students could help combat social isolation among the elderly. She founded the Elder Companionship Project and found the perfect partner in the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, whose members include nearly 400 nursing and rehab facilities, assisted-living residents and retirement communities, in the Elder Companionship Project. “Within a few days, I had 45 volunteers, both undergraduate and graduate students,” Helfer says.

Student volunteers including newly graduated Colleen Ward, who majored in communication disorders and is set to start grad school in speech-language pathology in the fall, prepared short videos for nursing home staff and residents. They’re also writing letters to residents and even video chatting.

“I hope people continue to check in on their neighbors and reach out to people in residential facilities even after all this is over,” says Ward, a member of the Commonwealth Honors College who, with the help of her sister and dog, prepared videos from her family’s home in nearby Orange.

Helfer points out that the project has given meaning to both the volunteers, the facilities’ stressed staff and the elderly clients.

“The restraint of COVID increases the risk for social isolation, especially in residential facilities,” Helfer says. “And those facilities were overwhelmed with meeting other COVID-related needs. Even though it’s a small gesture, making a little bit of a difference makes people feel good.”

In a similar effort, College of Nursing faculty, staff and students have been producing a weekly Encouragement Newsletter for health care providers, featuring personal notes of gratitude, support and inspiration. The newsletter is distributed to more than 100 health care facilities across Massachusetts.