UArizona Health Experts, Students Answer Public Calls on COVID-19

Mar 23, 2020

The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Arizona is taking some of the load off the Arizona Department of Health Services and each of its county counterparts by answering the flood of phone calls from residents concerned about COVID-19.

"We are very glad that faculty and students from the University of Arizona can play such a critical role in assisting others during a global health emergency," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, MD. "Our Poison and Drug Information Center is taking calls and triaging potential cases."

Kristen Pogreba-Brown, PhD, MPH

University of Arizona Health Sciences experts and students from the UArizona College of Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health (MEZCOPH) are taking the calls. Members of the public can call the center 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222. Calls are free and confidential.

Kristen Pogreba-Brown, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the MEZCOPH Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, trains students to work in a campus call center assisting health departments with disease outbreaks for a course called Student Aid for Field Epidemiology Response. Under normal circumstances, students in the course typically conduct detailed surveys to figure out how Arizonans with food poisoning were exposed to pathogens such as salmonella.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students are providing "surge capacity" for overwhelmed county health departments that, in addition to their regular work, are inundated with calls from the public about COVID-19.

Briggs Carhart, a master’s degree student in public health, helps the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center field the hundreds of daily calls they receive from people worried about the COVID-19 pandemic."Having public health students answer those questions is a good fit," Dr. Pogreba-Brown said. "We had everything in place to take those calls, especially from 5 to 8 p.m. when the health department should go home, because they have really long days."

She has enlisted current and former students to assist the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. After sending out an email asking students to volunteer for shifts, a dozen slots were filled in just a few hours.

Briggs Carhart, a Master of Public Health student concentrating on epidemiology, was one of the first to respond to Pogreba-Brown's request for volunteers. The next day, he was trained on the phone system and taking calls.

"There are pharmacists on the phone with people asking questions about COVID-19 while they're waiting for calls about rattlesnake bites or infants accidentally swallowing medication," Carhart said. "My duty is to take my training and use it in a real-life scenario."

He says students were given a script to provide guidance in answering common questions, but he didn't limit himself to reading from it verbatim.

"You're talking to people who are worried, so sounding like a robot isn't the best approach," Carhart said. "I was getting on their level, calming them down, allowing them to vent their concerns. I was able to give them some reassurance and some answers. That way, we're providing a service, rather than making them worry more."

Dr. Pogreba-Brown agrees.

"What we're trying to do at this point is quell people's fears, and make sure they understand they don't have to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper or every single bottle of hand sanitizer," she said. "We want people to be prepared but not panicked."

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NOTE: Photo provided upon request.

This article first appeared at the UA News website.

About the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health
Established in 2000, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is the first nationally accredited college of public health in the Southwest. Today the college remains the only accredited college of public health in the state of Arizona, with campuses in Tucson and Phoenix. The college enrolls more than 1,100 students per year across degree programs at the bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctoral levels. Through research, education and community engagement, the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health continues to find solutions to public health problems in Arizona, the Southwest and globally. For more information: publichealth.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter).

About the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy
The University of Arizona College of Pharmacy is the premier pharmacy college in the Southwest, and one of the top in the nation, focused on drug discovery, toxicology, pharmaceutics, health outcomes and sciences, pharmaceutical education and research through interprofessional training and collaborative public/private partnerships. Preparing pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists in undergraduate, professional, graduate and post-doctoral programs, the college embraces an entrepreneurial spirit, providing tailored educational opportunities to broaden students' experiences. Established 72 years ago as the first health sciences college at UArizona, the college has a long history of improving science and health, both in Arizona and around the world. It is currently ranked No. 8 among the nation’s 143 colleges of pharmacy by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. For more information: pharmacy.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube).

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

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