COVID-19 tracking efforts led by WVU emphasize need for public health investment

MORGANTOWN — While most people go years without needing the smoke detectors in their homes, they would never choose to get rid of a device that saves lives and prevents injury in the event of an emergency. But that’s often what happens to public health systems across the country.

Dr. Christopher J. Martin, professor for the West Virginia University School of Public Health, calls it the “paradox of public health.”

“When everything is going well, you get this false sense of complacency and security, and you dismantle public health systems,” said Martin, “why do we need contact tracers? We need to think about our public health infrastructure like a smoke detector. We need to build it up and understand that we have to maintain it, perhaps for a prolonged period of time, even when it appears unnecessary. It really is our smoke detector for the next outbreak.”

School of Public Health efforts to help track the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing, mapping, wastewater monitoring and more played a pivotal role in West Virginia’s response to the pandemic. Yet, work by faculty members also emphasized the need for public and private investments in research, training, and infrastructure to ensure better delivery of health care and save lives in the future.

At the onset of the pandemic, Martin and others recognized the need to train volunteers in contact tracing – a basic tool of public health surveillance used to help contain disease for the past century. Martin worked with faculty members and administrators at WVU, a collaborator at Johns Hopkins University and the West Virginia National Guard to develop one of the nation’s first online training courses in contact tracing.

The course, which launched in May 2020, was open to Guard members and others assisting health agencies in the pandemic response, as well as community volunteers interested in making a difference. More than 200 people statewide completed the course, exceeding West Virginia’s anticipated need for contact tracers, before it closed last fall.

Martin said the lack of generalized training in contact tracing reflects a broader need for more formal training in public health statewide. He noted that there are only a few board-certified public health specialists in West Virginia – including Dr. Jennifer Lultschik, who oversees WVU’s public health residency program.

Martin noted that the residency program launched after WVU secured a $1.77 million Preventive Medicine Residency Award from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration in May 2018, one of 17 such awards in the country. As the only program of its kind in the Appalachian region, private investments are needed to help the public health residency program grow. Meanwhile, increased salaries and resources – funded by state and local dollars – will help attract qualified candidates for public health job opportunities statewide.

“We don’t have any physicians who are formally trained in public health at any level of our state public health infrastructure, so everybody – all the county medical directors, all the state people – they’re learning on the fly,” said Martin, “not that those people haven’t done a fantastic job, but I think there’s a broader need to train people for those positions and to invest in them more.”

“WVU is also working to establish a public health training center, which would provide enhanced credentials, continuing education and the latest information for professionals working in the field. However, additional support – from public and/or private sources – is needed to implement the program with the University’s statewide partners,” said Dr. Jeffrey Coben, dean of the School of Public Health.