MISSOULA — The University of Montana offered a bachelor’s degree in public health for the first time last fall, complementing its Master's and Ph.D. programs. It was a coincidence that the first 100 Level classes in Public Health were offered as COVID-19 raged on. But the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an interest in public health -- and not just for those who want to pursue it as a career, but for those who want to play a meaningful role in disease prevention.
The phrase “contact tracing” has become common-place in recent months in connection with COVID. It's how health departments determines the chain of disease and who might be exposed to not just COVID-19, but also pertussis or other highly communicable diseases.
People can now become a certified contact tracer through a free course offered online through the University of Montana. “In the early days of the pandemic, it was clear there was going to be a need for contact tracers.” UM Professor of Epidemiology Curtis Noonan said.
Noonan -- who works in the UM School of Public Health and is also the director for the Center for Population Health Research -- says contact tracing classes were offered across the country, but this one is specific to Montana.
“There are particular features of Montana public health activity that are unique to the state. Montana has particular laws and authorities specific to Montana in regards to public health,” Noonan explained. So in collaboration with the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, UM Online, and the Montana Public Health Training Center, an on-line course was developed. Almost 300 people have already completed the course and can get to work.
“They're allowed to opt into the state system, they’re on a list if a county or a situation where they need help, they can reach out to that list,” noted Montana Public Health Training Center Program coordinator Emily Weiler. The contract tracers are working at county or tribal health departments -- or for health care providers. Some are EMTs, retirees, school nurses, or stay at home parents.
Public health itself has found itself in the spotlight – and it’s a busy but exciting time for the Montana Public Health Training Center. “We’re certainly in the spotlight right now. And suddenly the public is looking into public health and public health science and finally putting it under a microscope now as to what the workforce actually does,” Weiler said.
“And a lot of that is wonderful. People are interested and we are ready to teach and reach out to that workforce to give them what they need, especially now,” Weiler added.
Click here for more information about the course or other offerings at the Montana Public Health Training Center.