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Public Health Student Helping with CSUSM's Pandemic Response

By Brian Hiro

The coronavirus pandemic struck Zachary Nortz swiftly and without a care last spring.

One month, Nortz was working for an auto parts distribution business in Rancho Bernardo. The next month, he joined the legions of Americans in unemployment as the burgeoning pandemic cut a devastating swath through the U.S. economy.

He found himself suddenly biding his time at home with his wife, Rachel, a speech-language pathology lecturer at Cal State San Marcos now teaching remotely, and his infant daughter, August, whose daycare facility was shut down because of COVID-19.

“It was very difficult to deal with an abrupt situation,” Nortz said. “But I felt like, with a long-term career, if it wasn’t going to be something I was already used to, I wanted it to be new and exciting and something that would be helpful to other people.”

Nortz had always been interested in public health, and what better chance than during a pandemic to scratch that itch? After a 13-year break since he graduated from San Diego State, he returned to higher education last fall as a student in CSUSM’s Master of Public Health program.

Not content merely to excel in his studies, Nortz has leaped at every opportunity to help the university get the health crisis under control. When the newly formed Campus COVID Case Coordination (C4) team reached out to the public health department last September seeking volunteers to assist with campus exposure investigations, Nortz was one of about 10 students who raised their hand.

He emerged from that initial pack of volunteers to be selected as an intern working up to 20 hours a week for the C4 team helmed by Erin Fullerton, director of Integrated Risk Management. And his stellar performance in that role led to him being hired, two weeks ago, as a temporary employee charged with helping plan the organization and logistics of a possible COVID-19 vaccination site for faculty and staff.

“I am so blessed to have him,” Fullerton said. “I would have lost my mind without the extra help. He’s been instrumental in allowing us to pull off what we’ve done so far.”

As part of his psychology major at SDSU in the mid-2000s, Nortz took a number of courses that touched on public health and epidemiology. After graduating in 2007, he worked in the San Diego aerospace industry in the areas of supply chain management and logistics.

At CSUSM, he has fused his academic interests with his professional experience. As a volunteer and then intern last fall, he did his part for the campus while COVID-19 cases skyrocketed nationwide. His duties included making contact tracing calls to students, staff and faculty who tested positive or were exposed to someone who tested positive; following up to offer support to individuals in isolation or quarantine and refer them to campus resources as needed; maintaining a log of positive cases to be shared with San Diego County health officials; and participating in weekly county briefing calls. Once he rose to intern status, he also coordinated the schedule and assignments of the other MPH volunteers. 

Fullerton said the contributions of Nortz and the other MPH students were integral to CSUSM being able to meet the county’s requirement that employers contact every case of COVID-19 positivity and exposure.  

“And we’ve been able to do it more quickly than the county because they’re just overwhelmed,” Fullerton said. “That, I think, has really helped to keep our case counts lower than many other colleges and organizations. It’s also helped to support our culture of care because we have time to talk to folks and follow up with valuable information.” 

With the C4 team now working on a potential vaccination site, Nortz is devoting much of his time to that effort as well. Each week, CSUSM applies to receive a share of the vaccines being distributed around the county, and the hope is that, sooner than later, the supply will be sufficient to fulfill its request. If that happens, the university would receive the vaccines on a Tuesday and need to administer all of them by the end of the week. 

To be sure, it’s a challenging undertaking for a group that never has run a vaccine clinic before. But with his background in logistics and supply chain management, Nortz is a crucial piece of the puzzle.  

“I’m just making sure we’re doing everything possible to think things through in the most efficient and equitable way possible,” Nortz said. “And when that first person gets their vaccine, I will feel a big sense of accomplishment.” 

Nortz is on track to graduate from the accelerated MPH program by the end of this year, after which he would like to find a job in epidemiology at the county, state or even federal level. He said he’s particularly intrigued by the potential to coordinate vaccine clinics and develop more equality-driven methods of contact tracing.  

He knows it sounds weird to say while the pandemic rages on, but on a strictly personal basis, COVID-19 has been a blessing in disguise for him. 

“I have really found my stride, and I’m enjoying every part of what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I feel like I will have the continuing passion to do this job to the best of my ability, and the stakes are much higher than they’ve ever been for any of my previous responsibilities. I’m lucky to have landed so well on my feet.” 

Media Contact

Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist

bhiro@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7306