Local UC student helps stop the spread of Covid

How Kamala Nelson’s work with contact tracing and Hispanic communities is keeping Cincy safe


provided by Sam Middendorf

Kamala Nelson is helping the UC community with her app to assist in Covid contact tracing.

If you tested positive for Covid-19, what would you do? Who would you call? Who have you even been with in the past few days? For one infected person to trace their steps for possibly weeks in retrospect would be an impossible task, and, along with that, this person’s self-reported information would probably be wrong or at least lacking in critical data. Luckily, in this modern, connected world there have been some selfless and capable people doing that job for the infected— and better.

Kamala Nelson is a local U.C. pre-med student who is just one of these brave heroes. Growing up a Clifton native and attending Walnut Hills High School, Nelson is a through and through Cincinnatian. Apart from her Cincinnati heritage, she is also the daughter of two UC (University of Cincinnati) medical professionals, which helped lead to her decision to pursue medical studies.

“No matter what you learn in the classroom, you always have to be prepared for some new, unpredictable illness, and this pandemic is giving us the experience for just that.”

— Kamala Nelson

“As a student who hopes to arrive at med-school next year, this is a something I feel I need to do, almost part of my responsibility as someone within the medical world,” Nelson says. “This pandemic is something that we’re all a part of, and this is my opportunity to help.”

Nelson works as a “contact tracer” within the university’s Covid Watch Response Team, acting as the line between infected UC students and official university professionals. She makes calls regularly as part of her responsibilities, in which she talks directly to students and works to find out who they were in contact with and where they potentially caught the disease.

These precautions are absolutely vital to reducing the spread of Coronavirus, demonstrated by the success of South Korea’s federally run program. Due to the lack of a strong enough federal or state effort, institutions like UC are forced to conduct their own contact tracing, most importantly having to create new infrastructure to handle the huge swath of data.

Tweet from UC’s official account, debuting in the new app (Twitter.com)

This infrastructure comes in the form of the new UC Covid Check App. The application allows students to record their symptoms and alert them if their tests come back positive. However, the system can’t function on a hurriedly made app alone, so people like Nelson are desperately needed.

She explains the intricate network in which contact tracing works: “With the new app, students and tracers are alerted of positive tests, which, along with other data, are sorted through case investigators who analyze the student’s situation and activity. Then, we as contact tracers check in with each student to give them information and guidance in what they should be doing.”

“It can be a very stressful time for those infected,” she continues, “so its important that we check in and give them the direction they need.”

When asked about the difficulty of her work, Nelson swiftly answers: the lack of stability. “The urgent nature of the whole pandemic requires urgent work. Everything is so new, not just the app but the whole infrastructure of contact tracing. Changes are made constantly, so you’re rapidly learning new information. Just like everyone else, we’re figuring this out as it comes.”

“To Prevent Covid-19” A Spanish-language infographic created by Nelson, with help by Elder alum Sam Middendorf ’16 (Kamala Nelson, Sam Middendorf ’16)

Aside from her work with the UC Response Team, Kamala Nelson has also served Spanish-speaking communities with Covid defense. As part of the Supermercado (Supermarket) Project, she created and distributed original Spanish-language infographics on how to reduce the spread of Coronavirus.

“As a student double majoring in both Spanish and Pre-Med and noticing how the Hispanic population has been disproportionally affected by the virus, when I heard of the project, I was very excited help out in the most effective way I could,” Nelson says.

Ultimately, she expresses just how much she has learned from these experiences, not just with specific procedures, but how to keep up with the unexpected. “In fifty years, I’m probably not going to be dealing with a pandemic of the same exact strand or even type of virus we are right now. No matter what you learn in the classroom, you always have to be prepared for some new, unpredictable illness, and this pandemic is giving us the experience for just that.”

No matter who does it, contact tracing works, and Nelson’s work is a true show of love and dedication to the people of Cincinnati. Yet, while these efforts are desperately needed, a strong federal program could do even more. Stanford Medicine gives a new model for how a national tracing effort could significantly reduce coronavirus spread, even for such a large and complicated population as the United States. However, while the nation waits, committed people like Kamala Nelson will continue to help stop the spread.