'Detective’ public health officers on the case for COVID-19 contact tracing

Published:31 August 2020

CQU alumnus Melanie Holgate is an Environmental Health Officer with Queensland Health.

When she started her Public Health degree with CQUniversity, Yeppoon mum Melanie Holgate wanted to help her community stay healthy – now COVID-19 means she’s helping all Australians stay healthier, too.

The Environmental Health Officer at Queensland Health has been supporting the national contact-tracing program, to understand how the deadly virus is spreading in communities.

While it has been months since the coronavirus has been active in Central Queensland, Mrs Holgate said her team has been kept busy with contact tracing assignments from Victoria and other areas of Queensland.

“Every day our team will get a number of confirmed cases that need contact tracing, and we’ll advise our capacity, then they’ll send us the list,” Ms Holgate explained.

“The phone interview with the person who has tested positive can take two to three hours, trying to trace their steps during their contagious period, and develop a full list of possible contacts to start calling.

“It’s definitely detective work!”

Ms Holgate completed her CQU degree in 2012 and juggled the study with her job as a local government environmental health officer.

“I’d been in event management and hospitality, but wanted a career change, and studying Public Health built on my experience with food safety,” she said.

“Then I got the job with council while I was studying, which was great – the course was so practical, I was learning so much that was relevant to my day-to-day role.”

Ms Holgate joined Queensland Health two and a half years ago and said it had been a challenging time.

“Since then we’ve had bushfires and a dengue outbreak, then the coronavirus – so there’s been a lot of disaster management,” she said.

“Public Health courses don’t have a ‘Pandemic 101’, but everything I learnt about legislation, and all the microbiology units, have definitely been helpful.”

Understanding and working with community has also been vital.

“You need a lot of empathy. Sometimes I’ve been involved in calling people in quarantine every day to check how they’re doing, and some days are definitely harder than others for those people,” she said.

This year, contact tracing was added to the curriculum of CQUniversity's Communicable Diseases unit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health Dr Lisa Bricknell said students also participate in disease outbreak simulations to develop their skills in outbreak control.

"Plus all students complete a period of work-integrated learning in their third year, working side by side with public health professionals in industry - which has seen a lot of students gain employment even before they graduate," Dr Bricknell said.

Recent results from The Good Universities Guide (GUG) 2021 rated CQUniversity's Health Services and Support courses as five stars for full-time employment and median salary results.

While COVID-19 has made work life busy for Mrs Holgate, she said the enforced lockdown had health benefits for the community, and for her family too.

“It did force me to take advantage of more time with children and husband, getting a veggie garden going, and building a chook pen!”

“It’s been a confronting time, but hopefully it’s helped a lot of people think about putting their health first and improving people’s hygiene practices - including the importance of washing your hands!”

CQU's three-year Bachelor of Public Health is available to study on campus in Rockhampton, Cairns, Bundaberg and Townsville, or online.