POTSDAM — COVID-19 has presented challenges that we never could have imagined. Social distancing, wearing masks, and weekly pooled saliva testing have become as familiar to college campuses, as late-night visits to the library.

This semester, nine SUNY Potsdam students have embraced the challenge, and are giving back to the campus community as part of a new internship to meet the demands of the global pandemic — answering the call as newly appointed contract tracers for the college.

As students, faculty and staff complete pooled saliva testing every Monday, the test tubes are collected and sent to Upstate Medical in Syracuse, with the results returning a few days later. That’s when students like Chris Alexander ’24, a biology major from St. Regis Falls, step up to the plate.

The first two weeks of April were very busy for the new contact tracers.

“I made calls my entire shift,” said Alexander, who is on a pre-med track at the college. “I’ve been looking for experience hours for medical school. It’s been pretty awesome so far.”

For Alexander, the most valuable aspect of the internship has been learning how to effectively communicate.

“That’s a huge part of making those calls. You never know who you’ll get on the other end of the line. You could have someone who’s nice and cooperative, or someone who’s not having a great day, and not liking the news. Learning how to read that, and effectively communicate, is definitely the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of it,” he said.

At the end of February, students completed the required Johns Hopkins University training program that highlights important concepts for contact tracing — everything from an overview of COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2, to learning the steps for investigating cases and tracing contacts. A separate workshop with the nurses in Student Health Services provided them with additional information about SUNY Potsdam’s procedures for testing and contact tracing.

“The students have been an immense help with contact tracing, and I feel privileged to be working with these impressive individuals,” said Tracy Harcourt, director for SHS. “It is a difficult job, and they are handling it with professionalism.”

As cases ebb and flow on campus, the nine students remain ready to quickly disseminate vital information to students at the college — all while gaining real-world training for their future careers. And with their guidance, the spread of COVID-19 is continually kept in check.

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