Student fights pandemic through epidemiology


By Jared Ebanks, Assistant Featured Editor

This past school year, among the more than 100 schools that use the Common Application, Universities saw a 20% increase in applications to masters in public health programs. As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this generation of students is more inclined to prevent the shutdown that’s adversely affected countless undergraduate years. 

Sarah Keeley, who graduated from the University’s Integrative Biology program in 2017, returned to campus while the pandemic swept through the country. With her sights set on attending a masters program, Keeley was drawn to the work Champaign COVID response officials were involved in. These public health officials were known as epidemiologists.

As an undergraduate student at the University, Keeley spent most of her time in the classroom or working at the aquatic ecology lab and plant biology department. 

“Really every bit of the (COVID-19) response is done by health professionals and epidemiologists, and sometimes the health professionals are epidemiologists as well,” Keeley said.

One semester, Keeley took an environmental and human health course that kick-started her passion to work in environmental health. Through the course, she was made aware of the intersection between epidemiology and environmental health. 

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    “It kind of just confirmed my suspicions that it would be an interesting path to look into and would be necessary in the future,” Keeley said. 

    The CDC defines epidemiology as the study of the frequency, patterns, and causes of health-related states or events in populations, and the application of that study to address public health issues.

    Epidemiologists use research to make predictions on what the public should do to control the spread of diseases. They exist at the national, state, and local levels.

    Champaign County’s COVID-19 response team employs an epidemiologist who guides the collection and analysis process based on CDC guidelines. 

    “Everything that we do is based on research and information that’s been collected by people who are interested in biology and epidemiology,” Keeley said. “They use that research to make predictions of what we should do in order to control what’s going on so we get to a point where a vaccine could help stop community transmission and make it so we are a wholly safer population.”

    As a result of the continued effects of the pandemic, Keeley’s masters program hasn’t been the hands-on experience she hoped. 

    “Despite the fact that we’re an in-person program, we’re currently completely online,” Keeley said. “So I haven’t even stepped foot into the community health building.”

    Now in the second semester of her first year as a masters student, Keeley said one of the most important takeaways from her study has been learning the values of cultural humility to enter certain communities and see what challenges are presented. 

    “When you hear all the information about vaccine hesitancy, we need to understand that some communities have been adversely affected in the past,” Keeley said. “We need to be able to understand that to move forward and help the community.”

    Keeley’s enrollment in the masters program opened doors to new opportunities that allowed her to make an impact on the local level towards the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Currently, Keeley works at the Champaign Public Health Department as a Contact Tracer, notifying people within the Champaign community if they have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. She answers any questions the subject may have and directs them on the best precautions to take to keep themselves and those in their family safe. 

    Not everyone in the community has the resources to ensure their own safety let alone the safety of those they live with or work with. Keeley works to accommodate these individuals with the most effective options and resources for effective self-isolation. 

    Increased admissions to public health programs across the country are uplifting for Keeley. It’s necessary as the country continues to struggle with the consequences of the pandemic almost a year later. 

    “A lot of people don’t know the extent to public health,” Keeley said. “Public health is everything from the water you drink, to restaurant inspection, to mosquito control and tracking Lyme disease. More people going into it and more people having an understanding of it will only improve health literacy and the overall planning for the health of the community.” 

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    Editor’s Note: There was a factual error that has since been corrected. The Daily Illini regrets this error.