In the Community: Public Health Up Close

December 2020
Topics: Public Health (General), Disease Transmission, Disease Outbreaks, Community Impact
For Vicky Bass, public health is a calling. Her day-to-day work involves big picture healthcare policies and practices, while her volunteer service as a COVID-19 contact tracer puts her in the field, safeguarding community health.
Vicky Bass standing in front of the Alexandria Health Department

Vicky Bass, MPH, outside of the Alexandria Health Department. (Photo courtesy of Vick Bass.)

MITRE employees take our mission of solving problems for a safer world to heart—and to their communities. Our "In the Community" series highlights the many ways our people make a difference in neighborhoods across the country and around the globe.

Select stories feature employees lending their time, talent, and heart to the fight against COVID-19.  MITRE health policy analyst Vicky Bass is using her passion for public health to help quell community spread of the novel coronavirus.

I’m a volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps doing COVID-19 contact tracing for the Alexandria [Virginia] Health Department. The MRC is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There are MRC volunteer opportunities in all 50 U.S. states and territories.

The idea is to have a dedicated pool of volunteers ready to help communities in a crisis—with setting up immunization drives, educating providers on how to don personal protective equipment [PPE], or helping communities recover after hurricanes or even pandemics.

Anyone who’s interested in joining the MRC can volunteer. Volunteers are needed at every level—from people with no public health or clinical experience to people who are public health, clinical, and mental health professionals. No matter what level people are at, all volunteers receive training.

A Public Service Path

I’ve always felt the drive to serve the community. I was an AmeriCorps volunteer providing public health education before I went to grad school for public health. I got an understanding of how health departments and clinics overcome public health challenges—like standing up H1N1 influenza immunization clinics and communicating to the community about the importance of immunization.

When I worked at the National Association of City and County Health Officials, I learned about MRC, which has units embedded in local or state health departments. I always thought I’d find the time to sign up for the MRC. When the COVID-19 crisis started, I felt compelled to sign up. Since we’re working from home and MITRE offers paid time for volunteering and flexible work hours, I knew I’d be able to find the time to help during the pandemic.

In the Field

In Virginia, volunteers help drop off PPE at nursing homes or help stand up coronavirus testing and antibody testing sites. I have an MPH [Master of Public Health], so I was put on the city’s contact tracing and case investigation team.

I’ve been volunteering at least twice a week, usually after work on Wednesdays and on a day over the weekend. When I arrive at the health department, the first thing I do is find the public health nurse or epidemiologist, check in with them, and they assign my cases.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

When I’m assigned a case, I get familiar with the person’s background information, find out if there are any known cases linked to the individual, and try to determine if they need translation services.

Most of the time, individuals have already talked to their provider about their test results, but that’s not always the case. In some cases, people have been sheltering at home and have had little outside contact, so they are surprised they’ve tested positive. If someone is working in public, we gather information about their colleagues, ask about any visits to faith-based organizations, and when their first symptoms started. After we have a timeline, I try to determine time of contact—the who, the when, and then how to contact others they’ve been in close contact with.

A call can range from 20 minutes to over an hour-and-a-half, depending on what language the call is being conducted in and whether and how the individual has been isolating themselves. 

The Alexandria health department just started using English and Spanish versions of MITRE’s Sara Alert™ for contact tracing and case monitoring, so it has been exciting to see how the tools MITRE develops are used in the field.

SARA Aler on a laptop screen

Since SARA Alert™ is new to the Alexandria Health Department, case investigations are completed both on paper and online. (Photo courtesy of Vicky Bass.)

A Delicate Balance

I’ll typically start a conversation by letting the person know who I am, that laboratories have a legal duty to report cases to the health department, the health department has the legal duty do contact tracing to help prevent the spread of the virus, and that our conversation is confidential.

I also let them know that this information, in aggregate, can help the community down the line and help researchers learn more about the disease.

The response really runs the gamut. Most people I’ve talked to have been forthcoming and willingly share information to help protect their community. Some people are unable to work from home or have lost their jobs and worry how they’ll pay their rent and feed their family.

Thankfully, the health department can help take care of some of these needs through social services and coordinating the contactless delivery of food, masks, and supplies for as long as they’re needed.

The most important aspect is building rapport and trust. Here’s someone asking you details about your medical history, symptoms, where you work and live. Over the course of the conversation, I must be empathetic.

Next, I ask people how they are feeling today and allow them time to share their story. Sometimes it’s the first time sharing their experience in a way that’s not just five minutes with a healthcare provider. I believe these conversations can be empowering to people, allowing them to share their story and sometimes vent.

Why I Do It

What drives me to do this is the same thing that drives me to be at MITRE—to serve the public and help make a safer world. By day, I work at the macro level with my sponsor, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, to help write Medicare regulations and provide strategic policy support. Volunteering for MRC lets me go to a micro level and engage one-on-one, which personalizes the day-to-day numbers we see around COVID-19.

I use civic time [MITRE’s paid time for volunteer activities] during the week. My supervisor has been super supportive of me and is flexible if I need to adjust my hours. It has been a very nice balance.

—by Vicky Bass, as told to Karina Wright

Corporate social responsibility has long been a key element of our culture. We're committed to leading the way to a strong future through community involvement and volunteerism, locally and nationally.

MITRE offers 40 hours of paid time to employees to volunteer during the workday for causes they care about. Learn more about MITRE’s Corporate Social Responsibility efforts and commitment.

Explore More at MITRE Focal Point: Community Impact


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