Community Engagement Features Public Health Research Students

Center for Health Innovation connects students with the community for hands-on learning and outreach

Since August 2020, a talented team of students in OSU’s Center for Health Innovation have provided “surge” support to local public health departments in response to COVID-19.

Surge bench students Sarra Hawash, Marisol De La Torre, Shahad Almahdi and Tia McPharlin take time out with Sandi Phibbs at a max vaccination event.
Surge bench students Sarra Hawash, Marisol De La Torre, Shahad Almahdi and Tia McPharlin take time out with Sandi Phibbs at a max vaccination event.

By Kathryn Stroppel

Not all innovation is high-tech. Sometimes, innovation is building a solution that uses everyday tools from a time-tested toolbox. 

When COVID-19 hit, the Oregon State University Center for Health Innovation (OCHI) drew from all the tools at their disposal – including time, a slew of public health interventions and heart – and got to work building a community of care that involved teaching, research and outreach. 

OCHI Director Allison Myers quickly put together a call center for OSU’s TRACE-COVID-19 public health surveillance program and soon began meeting the needs not only of faculty researchers but also local public health departments and the Oregon Health Authority. 

Since August 2020, a talented team of students, brought together by OCHI, have provided “surge” support to local public health departments in response to COVID-19.  

Surge bench students integrate into existing teams within the Oregon Health Authority’s COVID Response and Recovery Unit (OHA CRRU), operating under an intergovernmental agreement with OHA, with funding through June 2023. The students involved, many in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, have conducted contact tracing, case investigation, data entry and more alongside professional OHA staff, getting hands-on experience while serving local public health departments.  

During the 2020-2021 academic year, this team of three graduate research assistants and seven undergraduates provided more than 5,000 hours of support and completed upwards of 90 hours of trainings and certifications to do this work.  

In Spring 2021, Allison and Sandi Phibbs, OCHI’s innovation, evaluation and research manager, trained 36 graduate and undergraduate students in COVID response in a three-credit seminar. Students learned about conducting epidemiological investigations, emergency health communications, incident command systems, working with protected health information in state databases, de-escalation techniques, working with community partners and more. 

“We basically covered all the skills and competencies needed to be workforce-ready for a COVID-19 response,” Sandi says. Current Surge Bench students joined the class for practice activities and shared their own experiences with H499/599 students.  

Experiential learning and intentional workforce development paid off for OCHI’s students. Seminar evaluations indicated that they valued the immediate, practical skills taught in the course. Among recent graduates from the surge bench, two started medical school this fall, two received multiple job offers, and another was snapped up by a local public health department and continues to investigate COVID cases.  

In summer 2021, OCHI onboarded 14 new surge bench students and hired two full-time program coordinators, Araceli Mendez and Nicole Breuner. More than 40 percent of surge bench students are bilingual, bicultural or both – an expressed need of OHA partners.  

“Our surge bench students are amazing,” Sandi says. “They’re dedicated and professional. One OHA partner recently remarked that the current OSU surge bench is the best team of students they’ve ever worked with.” 

Ensuring health for all 

Supported by a gift from PacificSource Health Plans, OCHI supports statewide COVID-19 vaccination efforts among hard-to-reach populations in Oregon. Since April 2021, OCHI professional and student staff have provided almost 200 hours of direct, non-clinical support to vaccination events and mobile clinics, and the team estimates the number of doses administered at these events at nearly 1,200. 

When Oralia Mendez, manager of workforce development and community programs, first joined OCHI, she thought the majority of her work would revolve around facilitating and growing the center’s Community Health Worker (CHW) training program. Then the pandemic exploded, and she wanted to help in any way she could.  

“Allison invited me into the TRACE work because of my CHW background, and I was fully involved in the ground work of this project, from leading a TRACE team to door-to-door testing to answering the Spanish call line,” she says. “The pandemic also provided an opportunity for our training program to grow. Since we offer a blended version of the training, I was able to quickly adapt it and offer it fully remote. This created a growth in enrollment and helped in growing our network of CHWs across Oregon to recruit for TRACE team leadership in the different communities we were serving.” 

Oralia and OCHI staff also have supported meaningful collaborations with Juntos en Colaboración (JEC) and Medical Teams International, and they’ve worked in partnership with local OSU Extension offices and local public health departments.  

Araceli and Oralia Mendez pose for a photo at the Fiesta Latina event held by OCHI.

Juntos en Colaboración works at the grassroots level to promote resiliency in Latino and Indigenous communities. They also support actions that increase access to programs and services and advise leaders on critical investment areas. As their work has grown, they’ve conducted a needs assessment and are working on health equity, food access and leadership development. They’re also leaving room to grow future projects based on the needs of the community.  

“We increase confidence in public health information, testing and vaccines using languages and channels used by the community to answer the questions they have,” says Oralia, a founding member of JEC. “We increase access to testing and vaccines in the languages they speak with hours and locations that are convenient to them. And we focus on community to bring them together in health.”