How Do You Serve? Partnerships and Systems Building

Our homework assignments at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) lost importance in late March: COVID-19 was spreading, and people were unnecessarily dying. With so much of the focus on medical care rather than upstream, public health interventions, we knew there was work to be done.

In early April, we learned that the newly formed Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC) needed operational support to deploy volunteers from 12 colleges and universities to local boards of health (LBOH) across Massachusetts. We jumped at the chance — this was our call to serve. Since working with the APHVC, we have managed the operations of the volunteer corps and, through this experience, spoken with dozens of local boards of health, deployed hundreds of talented volunteers, and provided urgent, vital support to the public health response to COVID-19.

Building a Partnership

The heart of the APHVC is the deployment process of volunteers to LBOHs. The process begins with a consultation call with a LBOH that acts as essentially a rapid needs assessment. Our aim in these consults is to understand each town’s unique needs. In Cape Cod, for example, we learned that towns are focused on beach safety, whereas towns in western Massachusetts need to update hiking trail signage.

Our consult calls give LBOH staff time to assess their department and strategize ways to serve their community. Every LBOH knows the ins-and-outs of their community better than anyone else. Their expertise is essential to resolve the crisis. We leverage this knowledge by creating true partnerships with each LBOH on their terms and serving the needs that they identify.  

LBOH staff are stressed—who wouldn’t be, given the enormous responsibility on their shoulders? In normal times, they have a large enough role, fulfilling a variety of tasks such as dealing with hazardous waste, mosquito-borne illness education, and protecting us from seasonal flu. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the work has increased on nearly all fronts: endless phone calls from their residents, new compliance issues for residents and businesses, and a deluge of contact tracing responsibilities.

Based on over 30 phone consultations with LBOHs, we have found that needs of LBOHs can be categorized into the following areas: 

  • Resource Consolidation and Development:
    • Ex: quarantine assistance guide, mental health resources, information on treating specific populations such as homeless and undocumented immigrants
  • Health Communication
    • Ex: virtual call centers, media talking points, social media management and content, infographics, and translation into other languages
  • Data Analysis
    • Ex: GIS mapping, demographic analysis of positive cases, charts and graphs of data for town leadership
  • Policy Research
    • Ex: Consolidating policy guidelines disseminated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, identify best practices, protocol assistance

The needs of LBOHs are evolving as the response to the pandemic changes, so our list of services continues to grow. For example, while needs began with contact tracing, we are now assisting with the 4-phase reopening plan.

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Examples of material made by APHVC volunteers.

Leveraging Volunteer Talent Quickly and Effectively

Once we have identified the need of the LBOH, our second step is to deploy volunteers to the LBOH. At the start of the APHVC, volunteers were recruited from our 12 partner academic institutions through a simple Google form survey. The response was incredible, with hundreds offering their time in less than 2 weeks. We now have a database of hundreds of passionate, talented volunteers.

We deploy teams of 2-35 volunteers to each LBOH. A key part of our volunteer structure is a team lead, who serves as the ongoing point-of-contact between with the town’s local board—essentially the project manager. Team leads are public health graduate students or professionals with exceptional leadership skills that allow them to move at the rapid pace this crisis demands.

Each team lead manages a group of volunteers, who all have the skills, drive, and passion to serve the LBOHs, no matter the need. In addition to their public health expertise, volunteers bring a wide range of skills including talents in graphic design, advanced data analysis, grant writing and policy research ability, and fluency in many languages. They come from medical, social work, health care management, and research backgrounds.

But their skills are not the full picture. Their selfless devotion to the local public health is awe-inspiring. In April and May alone, our volunteers logged over 6,300 hours – despite many working or in school full time.

This time in the field has been well spent. Our volunteers have accomplished:

  • Over 1,000 wellness phone calls for seniors and vulnerable people
  • Phone calls to over 1700 confirmed cases and contacts
  • Over 100 poster and infographic designs for specific activities or audiences
  • Ongoing management of social media, including developing the content for over 100 posts (example)
  • Translating over 100 documents into more than 10 different languages (example)
  • 79 charts/presentations of data analysis
  • 9 GIS Analysis Maps

Just the Beginning

For both of us, we are inspired to be part of public health in action. We were drawn to public health because of opportunities to creatively solve problems, build meaningful partnerships, and develop best practices, which is exactly what APHVC has allowed us to do. During a destabilizing time, working on the response has tethered and grounded us in incredibly meaningful work. We look forward to graduating with our MPH from BUSPH at the end of the summer (we finished those assignments after all). And, like the APHVC, we hope to serve the Commonwealth for years to come.

Author Profile

Amanda Canavatchel and Elizabeth Koonce
Amanda Canavatchel is the Field Operations Manager for APHVC. She is proud to graduate with her MPH from the Boston University School of Public Health in September 2020. She is passionate about public health leadership and health policy. She feels privileged to have the opportunity to serve the Commonwealth during the crisis. 

Elizabeth Koonce is the Internal Operations Manager for APHVC. She will graduate with her MPH from the Boston University School of Public Health in September 2020. She is passionate about solving operational problems and reducing burnout among health care workers. She is honored to be part of APHVC’s mission to augment local public health.