Education officials create team to support contact tracing in schools

Tue, 11/24/2020 - 12:00pm

    AUGUSTA — Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin announced Tuesday the deployment of a team of Department of Education Contact Tracers.

    A cadre of nurses, many retired from years of employment in Maine schools, have received training through the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) and will be immediately called into service for school-specific contact tracing, according to a news release. 

    “This program will provide Maine schools with specialized supports throughout the contact tracing process,” said Commissioner Makin. “It will support the work of school nurses and other school staff as they communicate with and monitor close contacts of positive cases. The overarching goal is to support our schools and keep our children actively engaged in learning while mitigating the spread and effects of this pandemic.”

    The new program will complement the ongoing work of Maine CDC’s case investigation and contact tracing team, which now includes approximately 150 staff and volunteers.

    With support and training from Maine CDC, and funded through federal emergency relief funds, the first team members have begun to assist in the notification to those who have been deemed a close contact to a staff member or student who has tested positive for COVID-19.

    This team will enroll “close contacts” into Sara Alert, an online platform that Maine CDC uses to notify and monitor people exposed to the coronavirus. The Maine CDC will continue to investigate confirmed cases and outbreaks associated with schools.

    “The partnership between health and education teams will help protect students, teachers, school staff, and school communities,” said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

    This appears to be a first of its kind effort, per the release, and comes as Maine sees a significant increase in the prevalence of COVID-19 in Maine communities recently, increasingly impacting local schools and creating additional demands on those already conducting contact tracing for Maine CDC.

    Last week, roughly half of the close contacts identified as connected with new cases of COVID-19 in Maine were associated with schools, the release noted.

    Even though there is a lower rate of transmission in school settings than in the general community (13.5 compared to 33.1 new cases per capita in the last 30 days), Maine has taken a comprehensive approach in defining “close contacts” in schools, according to the release.

    Out of an abundance of caution and in recognition of the difficulties in tracking the movements of children throughout a day, an expanded definition of close contact at schools includes all students within a classroom or other common setting, per the release. Therefore, a positive case within a school can have considerably more close contacts than that of a general community member.

    To ease the impacts that schools are having on the system and to continue to provide responsive and timely support to school staff, students and families, Emily Poland, Maine DOE’s School Nurse Consultant, sent an open call for retired nurses to consider being trained to support contact tracing.

    In a matter of two days, 21 nurses stepped forward, including 20 RNs and one LPN. They bring with them a collective 758 years of nursing experience, with 352 years of service as school nurses. With medical and school-based experience, this team of nurses will be an invaluable resource to families, teachers, and staff alike as they conduct the contact tracing in Maine schools.

    “Nurses are heroes, they step up every day to the ever-changing challenges no matter the situation, even if it means stepping out of retirement,” said Emily Poland, DOE School Nurse Consultant. “School nurses are no different; they are dedicated to keeping their students in school and ready to learn, but this requires a lot of effort in monitoring symptoms that students have, referring to primary care providers, and communicating with families, all while attending to the various health needs of all students in the school on any given day. I am proud to be among the ranks of Maine nurses.”

    Additional resources are being put into place by the Department of Education in response to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Maine, and to assist both schools and Maine CDC. This includes the launch of a single, dedicated phone number for schools to report positive cases, and a dedicated portal through which close contact information for schools can be submitted for follow-up.

    The Department of Health and Human Services will supplement the team at the Department of Education as needed.