Harvard School of Public Health Students Join Workforce During Pandemic


UPDATED: April 10, 2020, 9:20 p.m.

Students from Harvard School of Public Health are joining the workforce through initiatives to support both the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Harvard University Health Services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of student volunteers will help the Department of Public Health with contact tracing efforts across the state by identifying and reaching out to anyone potentially exposed to coronavirus. Others will assist HUHS by communicating with and creating health promotion programming for University affiliates and tracking the latest public health recommendations.

In a briefing on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 said the state was stepping up its contact tracing efforts as the number of the cases continues to grow. As of Wednesday evening, there were 16,790 recorded cases of COVID-19 and 433 deaths in Massachusetts.


The DPH contact tracing effort involves the Academic Health Department Consortium, a government partnership with eleven academic institutions in the state including the School of Public Health, Boston University School of Public Health, and Tufts University.

Cristina Alonso and Eric M. Coles, School of Public Health doctoral students, are co-leading the coordination of the student volunteer workforce across the eleven institutions. Alonso said 1,600 students have expressed interest in volunteering through a survey.

Alonso and Coles are in the process of contacting the state’s 351 local boards of health and pairing students with them. Alonso said each of these cities and towns have different needs from contact tracing to translation assistance, which are met by the “diversity of schools and programs” involved in the effort.

“We feel even better equipped to meet the needs because the boards need everything from people who can make phone calls and give elders information, to designing and mapping cases versus where we send volunteers,” Alonso said.

Based on his conversations with several boards, Coles said the Massachusetts public health infrastructure is in “dire need” of assistance as parts of the state face “a huge uphill battle.”

Coles said he hopes the additional student support for public health officials across the state will decrease the number of hospitalizations.

“If we had a stronger public health infrastructure nationwide then we wouldn't see as many people in the hospital,” Coles said. “We would be able to keep people healthy and not needing clinical care, and I think that's really important.”

In addition to state-wide public health initiatives, some students work directly with HUHS to assist in its communications with individual University affiliates, track recommendations from public health experts, and help establish health promotion programming.

HUHS Director Giang T. Nguyen wrote in an emailed statement that he reached out to the School of Public Health a few weeks ago to begin a collaboration between HUHS and public health students.

“While this pandemic brings about tremendous challenges, it also provides learning opportunities for public health students to gain invaluable real-world experience, all while expanding our capacity to respond to inquiries and reports from our community,” he wrote.

After Nguyen reached out to the School of Public Health, the school’s student association “mobilized and organized the students” to volunteer with HUHS.

Lucas E. Buyon, the president of the student association, said more than 200 students responded to the initial volunteer form within 72 hours. He said the first 25 volunteers began their work this week but added that more may be needed as the situation evolves.

“Positions will get added as the pandemic is ongoing and we get a better sense of areas where we can help HUHS, also as the need grows. Right now there's a moderate level of call and email volume in HUHS, but perhaps as the situation in Massachusetts deteriorates, which I don't think it will, as of now,” Buyon said. “That could definitely increase the role of students in information management for HUHS.”

Buyon said the contributions of student volunteers allowed for HUHS physicians and nurses who were previously doing the work to have more time for clinical duties.

According to Buyon, students at the School of Public Health are “hopeful” this project could lead to further collaborations between them and HUHS.

“Particularly when it comes to health promotion work, this is an area of public health work that won't really go away even after the pandemic is over,” Buyon said. “We're really hoping that perhaps this will be the catalyst of a pipeline for students at the Chan School to give back to the broader Harvard community, as well as gain practical real world experience within the domain of Harvard as a whole.”

—Staff writer Fiona K. Brennan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @FionaBrennan23.

—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at