13:59 PM

Social worker says UHCL training equipped her to help on COVID-19 front line

Social Worker COVID

Social workers play a key role in our nation’s health care system, and as the country continues to grapple with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, their intervention has been critical to helping contain it. Ashley Childers-Dykes, who graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake in 2008 with her Bachelor of Science in Social Work, works for the Texas Department of State Health Services and believes she and her team have helped make an impact in Texas, where almost 24,000 people have been confirmed COVID-19 positive to date.

Childers-Dykes, who is the regional program manager of the Specialized Health and Social Services Program in the DSHS, said that daily, she receives a list of COVID-19 positive cases from a team of epidemiologists who do community disease surveillance. The agency is divided into regions, and hers covers 16 counties —seven of which do not have a local health department. “We do the tracing and notification of COVID-19 cases for Walker, Waller, Wharton, Austin, Colorado, Matagorda and Liberty Counties. For those counties, we are the local health department,” she said.

“The labs and doctors must report this disease, and then a case is assigned to a nurse who calls the person to find out who they’ve been in contact with,” Childers-Dykes said. “The 48 hours before symptoms show up are the most important. Did the person go to work? Who’s in their household? Did they go to the grocery store? The nurse finds out this information and she teaches the person about quarantining. Then my team gets the list of cases and the people they’ve come in contact with and we start informing them that they’ve been exposed and they have to quarantine.”

That’s when Childers-Dykes’ job starts. Whether it’s a close contact or a one-time encounter, she informs people on the list they must quarantine for 14 days. “It’s difficult in households, where everyone is continually exposed to each other,” she said. “You do your best in your household to isolate yourself, but you might have to share a bathroom or a kitchen. The people living in a house with someone COVID-19-positive are considered continuously exposed unless the person can truly separate.”

She makes everyone in the entire household aware, explains how quarantining works, and start asking about symptoms. “We have a questionnaire that we use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and I complete a form on every member of the household and every contact listed,” she said. “Some people need letters for employers that say they have to quarantine, and I arrange for those.”

Close contacts are also informed. “Those are people who have ridden in a car with the infected person or coworkers and friends who may have been around. I start calling them, asking for their symptoms and notify them they need to be quarantined as well,” she said.

Generally, she said, people accept what she’s telling them. “On a busy day, I might talk to 20-30 people,” she said. “We are getting into a rhythm, building out our team and now we have more to take on the load. We don’t have fewer cases, we just have more people to handle it.”

Since her work impacts rural communities, Childers-Dykes said that getting people the help they need can be complicated. “Some counties might only have one testing site,” she said. “Some people live in poverty and have no transportation. How can you get someone to a testing site when it’s far and they have no way to get there? Now we’re dealing with systemic issues that were there before COVID-19, and while we can’t fix those problems, we are trying to navigate them in the world of COVID-19.”

Attempting to solve these problems certainly requires critical, out-of-the-box thinking skills, she said. “During my time at UH-Clear Lake, critical thinking is the skill I acquired, and it’s the one that has the most impact on my work,” she said. “Those skills have been valuable in situations where I have to come up with a solution or an opinion quickly, and it’s the ability to solve a problem in a way that is meaningful and intelligent.”

Clients look to social workers to fix problems, think outside the box, and navigate obstacles, she continued. “One of the most helpful things I learned at UHCL was learning to interview. We were taught the basics about nonverbal cues, being mindful about how you portray yourself and watching for certain things in the person you’re interviewing,” she said.

That helped her see an interview from both sides. “A lot of schools teach you how to interview, but not how you should be careful not to be judgmental, watch your facial expressions, and control things you don’t realize you’re doing,” she said. “Our professors and the program were instrumental in teaching us interviewing, and now, as a program manager, I am comfortable speaking to people about things that are sensitive while staying empathetic. I learned all that at UHCL. I hold that time dear to my development as a person as well as to my career.”

Before the spread of COVID-19, Childers-Dykes managed a program that coordinates a Medicaid benefit for medically fragile children aged birth to 21. “If a child has a mental, physical or emotional disability and they receive Medicaid, we would do home visits, assessments, and coordinate the benefit for them,” she said. “That program is still operating during this time, but we are not doing the home visits now so we do not expose medically fragile children.”

Meanwhile, she said that she feels her work has helped contain the spread of the virus in the communities she serves. “Imagine what it would be like if we weren’t calling people to tell them they’d been exposed,” she said. “People would be out doing what they normally do and potentially infecting many other people. Our health care system would be even more inundated than they currently are. I believe we are having some impact.”

Learn more about the Social Work program at UHCL online.