Health science students’ role in the public health response during the pandemic

by Sergio Alves
General Public Health . Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences Public Health Program

As the COVID-19 pandemic was getting progressively worse during 2020, medical students found themselves in-between education and the compelling duty to join in the public health response to the pandemic given our clinical background. There were many differing perspectives regarding medical students assisting during the pandemic. In my experience, we had many students who felt that they should assist as much as possible in combatting the pandemic. These students, particularly more senior students, believed that they were trained to work in the medical field and were an under-utilised source of aid who could be beneficial in assisting with combatting the pandemic. Some students believed that they should not volunteer during such a hazardous time. These students believed that they should not have to volunteer without being provided with insurance should they contract the virus as well as students who were worried about spreading the virus amongst their family, thereby further worsening the pandemic and placing their family at risk which is a reasonable fear. There were also students with comorbidities who feared that they may contract the virus and have a more severe reaction. There was much debate amongst students as to what should be done during this time. I decided to volunteer with the public health response mounted against the COVID-19 pandemic during this time.

My health sciences university campus is linked with Tygerberg Hospital, which is a tertiary hospital located in Cape Town, South Africa and was designated as a COVID-19 treatment facility. It is a very large hospital that receives patient referrals from many other hospitals in the province. There had been many patients admitted to ICU with COVID-19 at Tygerberg Hospital and it became evident that frontline workers needed to stay up to date with COVID-19 literature as the pandemic progressed. The Division of Health Systems and Public Health put out a call around that time asking how they could best assist frontline healthcare workers at Tygerberg Hospital in managing the pandemic. A Professor at the university then noted a particular problem with which he believed the Division of Health Systems and Public Health could assist.

New management and treatment guidelines for COVID-19 were being discussed in research daily. Medical journals had sped up the review time of COVID-19 related articles, thereby allowing for faster publication of articles to improve real-time dissemination of information (Xiang et al., 2020). This dissemination of information was essential to healthcare workers as it provided the latest guidelines which were used to treat patients with COVID-19 (Song & Karako, 2020). Health sciences students then volunteered to assist healthcare workers on the frontline by summarising the latest research regarding COVID-19, thereby forming a group called the ICU Research Response Team to develop summary documents with updated statistics and relevant research to assist healthcare workers on the frontline during this time. These documents became known as the Daily ICU Briefs and were disseminated via WhatsApp or email daily for over 3 months to frontline healthcare workers in several provinces in South Africa.

These briefs were meant to provide insight into COVID-19 as well as a summary of the most relevant literature which could be used to guide clinicians in their management of these patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. The topics summarised in these briefs were initially guided by suggestions from ICU specialists and frontline healthcare workers. The topics included the epidemiology of COVID-19, clinical manifestations and complications as well as treatment and management guidelines including guidelines on managing patients with COVID-19 as well as multiple comorbidities. These daily briefs were distributed to clinicians via WhatsApp, email and were shared among various ICU teams and healthcare workers in South Africa. Each of these Daily ICU Brief presentations was accompanied by a descriptive audio file to allow for the frontline healthcare workers to listen to the presentations.

During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa in early 2020, I had noted that time as an opportunity to get involved in the public health response that was being mounted to combat SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa. I volunteered to assist in any way that I could during this period, thereby allowing me to be present at the inception of the ICU Research Response Team and the subsequent Daily ICU Briefs. I was fortunate enough to lead the health sciences student volunteer group alongside one of my colleagues. The health sciences volunteer group consisted of undergraduate medical students from 4th through 6th year of their studies as well as post-graduate, namely MSc and PhD students, who assisted in identifying relevant research, critically appraising said research and then compiling the summary of these articles for distribution.

Volunteering as part of this public health response team was not only a low-risk opportunity for students to assist in the public health response against SARS-CoV-2, but it also allowed for these students to gain a better understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as improve their ability to critically appraise and conduct their own research. Virtual seminars were held by Professors and researchers wherein these students were taught how to improve their ability to conduct research as well as their writing ability. Several of these students went on to conduct research regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the way in which the pandemic affected health sciences students and their education during this period.

Following the resolution of these Daily ICU Briefs, an opportunity to assess how effective these summaries were in influencing clinicians’ decisions with regards to the management of SARS-CoV-2 was noted. It was then decided that we would conduct a study which would evaluate if the Daily ICU Briefs had as much of an effect as we had hoped. We are currently still busy conducting this study, but the data is looking promising with regards to showing that these Daily ICU Birefs were effective in assisting the decision-making process when managing patients who are infected with SARS-CoV-2.

The ICU Research Response Team allowed for an innovative means of students getting involved with combatting the COVID-19 pandemics without having to expose themselves to the risk of contracting the virus themselves. This volunteer opportunity can be considered as a possible alternate way for students to assist in a low-risk environment during pandemics or future outbreaks or epidemics.

AuthorSergio Alves, TIPH Global Ambassador 2022


Song, P., & Karako, T. (2020). COVID-19: Real-time dissemination of scientific information to fight a public health emergency of international concern. BioScience Trends14(1), 1–2.

Xiang, Y. T., Li, W., Zhang, Q., Jin, Y., Rao, W. W., Zeng, L. N., Lok, G. K. I., Chow, I. H. I., Cheung, T., & Hall, B. J. (2020). Timely research papers about COVID-19 in China. The Lancet395(10225), 684–685.