When 22-year-old Nicole Bratsch’s study abroad program in Chile was cut short in March as COVID-19 cases spiked internationally, the Northern Arizona University senior returned home — and went straight to work on the front lines of the pandemic.

From April through August, Bratsch was the COVID-19 data manager at Whiteriver Indian Hospital, located on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation about half an hour’s drive south of her family home in Pinetop.

In this role, she helped with COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, gathering and organizing patient data, giving twice daily reports on the situation to the contact tracing team, while also occasionally doing field work alongside hospital staff and trained community members. Together they located individuals who had potentially been exposed to a positive COVID-19 patient, gathered information about people they were in contact with themselves, took nasal swabs and brought the samples back to the lab for testing.

She said the field work was often a challenge, because many community members there do not have cell phones and sometimes were not in the location where they were expected to be.
“It’s an incredible team,” Bratsch said. “It’s a lot of work, but it felt like important work, and it was giving me a purpose in all of this.”