University of Maine at Farmington’s Peer Care Managers are, from left, Brianna Hinkley, Sam Folsom, Hunter Ellis and Madison Vigeant. The assist fellow students placed in quarantine or isolation due to exposure to the coronavirus. University of Maine at Farmington photo

FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington has implemented the Peer Care Manager  Program to assist students in isolation due to testing positive for COVID-19 or in quarantine due to exposure to those infected.

The support program was developed by UMF Health Center Director Shelley Hickey who recognized the effectiveness of having a fellow student providing a social connection to those affected by COVID-19.

“Peer-to-peer interactions improve the likelihood of success in garnering student compliance with quarantine and isolation guidelines,” Hickey said in an email. “These students are doing an amazing job in their roles as PCMs and this model gives them meaningful work experience related to their chosen career paths.”

As of Nov. 23, UMF has reported five resident students contracting COVID-19. They are placed in private rooms for 10 days and those considered close contacts go into quarantine for 14 days.

Peer Care Manager Sam Folsom was quarantined after developing coronavirus symptoms and said she was unable to develop a coping mechanism during her time of separation.

“I went from doing homework in my dorm room to scrambling to pack up what I needed and going to a dorm room on the third floor of a new hall that I didn’t feel comfortable in,” Folsom said in an email. “Initially, I cried, spent my time watching Netflix, and catching up on homework.”

Responsibilities of a peer care manager include connecting students with resources while maintaining confidentiality, explaining quarantine and isolation requirements and delivering meals while wearing personal protective equipment.

“I am in awe at the students who are in those rooms for 10-plus days and still answer my knock on the door with the same smile and happy tone,” Folsom said.

The four peer care managers spent several weeks in training to learn more about the coronavirus, the social effects of isolation  and the process of contact tracing. The students are also responsible for updating contact tracing documentation for UMF’s Health Center which helps the Maine Center for Disease Control during contact tracing.

“I think that we are incredibly social beings and rely on each other especially during trying times,” peer care manager Brianna Hinkley said in an email. “Therefore, isolation or quarantine can feel isolating or alienating. The training guided us how to be aware, emotionally supportive, and empathetic to these feelings and their expressions.”

Hinkley added that she’s been impressed with how students manage to remain connected during these periods of separation. When delivering meals, Hinkley said she is often interrupting a student’s video call with friends or family members.

Hinkley and Folsom expressed initial concerns about taking on the position of a peer care manager, fearing potential exposure with students who have contracted COVID-19. Their concerns quickly dissipated once they were made aware of the positions’ precautions and CDC protocols.

“Once I learned of the precautions we would take and our use of PPE, I’ve felt much safer with the use of gloves, masks, and staying as far back as possible when talking to the person/delivering meals,” Folsom said.

The two peer care managers were also struggling to find work since campus jobs were more difficult to come by due to the pandemic impacting student positions. Hinkley said she was immediately interested in the posting, especially since the position related to her minor in Health and Medicine.

Folsom said she’s found the position to be especially fulfilling when she hears that a student has been released from quarantine because she understands the feeling of separation.

“I personally know how hard it is to be in quarantine; it’s nothing you can sugarcoat,” she said. “I connect with their sense of happiness and relief in a more personal way because I felt how they feel. So, when I notice their name was taken off the quarantine list, I always smile a little.”

The program ran for just over a month before UMF switched to complete remote learning after Thanksgiving break on Wednesday. The services of the peer care managers may still be called upon as UMF will continue to house students who opted to live on campus over break.

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