covid-19 sleuths

Houston school offers COVID-19 'disease detective' online course

Learn how to contact trace COVID-19 with UH's new, online course. Photo by Getty Images

As the nationwide battle against COVID-19 surges on, the University of Houston is launching a free new program to train locals how to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.

The new contact tracing and case identification certificate program — dubbed Epi Corps for Epidemiology Corps — is meant to train up a new type of so-called "disease detective" to combat coronavirus. The 12-hour, online course is currently open to UH students, faculty, and staff — and will soon be made available to the general public, according to the university.

This comes as the Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. More than 100,000 trained contact tracers will be needed across the country to address COVID-19, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to reopen the state calls for some 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.

The goal for the Epi Corps training program is to be scaled statewide, as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states. "We really do not have a good handle on how many people have been exposed or how many people are asymptomatic carriers, making contact tracing critically important," said program organizer, Bettina Beech, in a statement.

Contact tracing is considered crucial in the fight against COVID-19, teamed with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates, and good hygiene practices. The Center for Disease Control warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

Through this new program, the corps staffers could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to assist COVID-19 patients recall everyone they've had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers would then notify those contacts of their potential exposure and provide education, support, and information to understand their risk.

The contact tracers-in-training will be trained on COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality, and more, according to the school. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered via the Blackboard digital learning platform. Plans are moving forward to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks.

The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules, according to UH.

"Contact tracing, along with large-scale testing, is a critical component to reopening our state and to stimulate the economy, but the national and local public health infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this task alone," said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in a statement. "As a public university dedicated to serving the community, it's incumbent upon us to step up and provide the necessary training so we can get through this crisis together."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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