Portrait of recent Arizona State University graduate Laura Meyer.

Social Work Month Award recipient supervised contact tracing of COVID-19 cases

By

Mark J. Scarp

Successfully combating the COVID-19 pandemic has depended on the minds, hands and hearts of thousands of individuals in a wide spectrum of fields, from medicine and public health to public affairs and social work.

One important component of the battle of the last two years involves case investigation and contact tracing — public health tools that involve identifying infected individuals and those with whom they’ve been in contact, as an attempt to prevent further infections and save lives.

A recent Arizona State University graduate will be honored this month for her role in this valued effort.

Laura Meyer joined the ASU COVID-19 Case Investigation and Community Response Team in June 2020 as a founding member. The team’s student and staff workforce provide surge support to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health by interviewing cases, or individuals who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Meyer will be honored with the Early Career Achievement Award from the School of Social Work for her efforts supervising members of this team, which has investigated and closed more than 80,000 positive cases in Maricopa County, during the March 25 Social Work Month Awards presentation.

Meyer earned a Master of Social Work from ASU in May 2020 and is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Colorado. She was originally hired as a program manager responsible for overseeing training and supervision of student volunteers and staff, including several School of Social Work students. Meyer said her prior experience as a staffer for a crisis hotline in Colorado and researching and training empathic communication as part of her master's thesis prepared her for this role.

Epidemiologist Megan Jehn, an 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 Meyer's committee chair and one of her professors while she was studying in Tucson, recruited her to help lead the response team.

“Our main job is to call people who tested positive and ask them about their symptoms, how they’re doing, if they need any guidance,” Meyer said. “We also elicit contacts, (individuals with) whom they have been around and who may have been exposed to COVID.”

Emotions sometimes emerged during conversations

Meyer taught team members how to conduct interviews, explain public health guidance and show empathy during difficult moments. Sometimes, the conversations evoked deep feelings.

“With COVID, it is bigger than just an illness; it is very emotional and scary for people,” she said of cases that team members investigated. “You aren’t only calling people asking about their symptoms. You’re also encountering their emotions. COVID has played a much larger role in people's lives than we anticipated.”

Contract tracing is an inexact science, she said, but she believes it to have greatly helped battle 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 dent.”

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

“Seeing students take the opportunity to be a case investigator has been really inspiring.” she said.

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’s working on disseminating the knowledge the team has gained from the pandemic’s first two years for future analysis and application.

Jehn and Shafer are “just powerhouse people, incredibly encouraging to work with,” Meyer said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at 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 has shown through in her leadership role as ASU provided critical support to Maricopa County Department of Public Health's efforts to manage the COVID-19 epidemic since its outbreak. Bringing the social work perspective with a team of public health colleagues, Laura has helped focus the team's efforts on reaching underserved and vulnerable communities.” 

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

“One thing I learned from this job is every single phone call and every single interaction matter,” she said. “You build a stronger society and a stronger public health response for the future. I could not have dreamed up my job or this opportunity, but I’ve learned there is always a need for doing this.”