Inland Empire schools scramble to solve contact tracing ‘puzzle’ – Press Enterprise
For COVID-19 contact tracers in the Inland Empire, work only increased a year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic.
Now that schools have fully reopened, the new push is keeping students – who are among the most vulnerable – safe. From keeping detailed classroom plans to maintaining “close contact” lists, interior school districts are doing contact tracing work during a most unusual school year.
Sifting through a list of names, tracers make dozens of calls to parents and guardians of those who have tested positive. They ask where the students last visited, who they last saw, where they might have been infected. They are offering families guidance on how long to quarantine, in accordance with district and state health guidelines. They provide information on testing and vaccination sites.
It’s tedious but crucial work, the plotters said.
Since the lifting of state coronavirus restrictions, counties and interior school districts have strengthened contact tracing protocols. Although there are fewer tracers overall than at the start of the pandemic, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have created special teams to help track positive cases and stop the spread of the virus in schools. , workplaces, healthcare facilities, homes and elsewhere.
Some are working remotely, chatting with families and staff from home. Some tracers are former school district staff who help out. Others are temporary employees with public health experience, who have been recruited to help during COVID-19 outbreaks.
Parents or guardians should report a child’s symptoms or positive test results to their school. These cases are then forwarded to COVID-19 liaison officers at the school, district and county levels. Schools report positive cases to county public health departments, in accordance with state guidelines. The tracers are then looped. They ensure that all families have any tests, vaccines or other information they may need and that current quarantine rules – including the modified 10-day quarantine, depending on symptoms – are followed.
“A lot of times it’s a headache,” said Marsie Rosenberg Gutierrez, COVID-19 disease investigation and response manager for the Riverside University Health System. “We have more people in the school scene due to all the cases and potential cases and exposures happening on campus. This type of contact tracing is not just about calling people. It’s also about finding out if any cases are linked, if any children have exposed others, how to stop the virus in its tracks and ensure that (the spread) doesn’t go any further.
The Riverside County Public Health Department had about 360 contact tracers in May and June 2020, Gutierrez said. Today, more than 100 tracers dispatch calls, with a large team handling school-related cases. These include public and private schools, daycares, after-school programs, and higher education.
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the San Bernardino County Public Health Department had 11 “communicable disease investigators,” spokesman David Wert said. As cases grew, the county used employees from its public defender’s office and increased its workforce with in-state and out-of-state hires. At the height of the pandemic in January 2021, Wert said the county had nearly 440 contact tracers.
The county’s contact tracing program has about 150 members who offer guidance and resources to schools, workplaces, healthcare facilities and anyone else reporting positive cases, said Director of Public Health Josh Dugas in an email. The county “prioritizes supporting schools” in tracing and managing possible outbreaks, he said.
Much of the tracing in San Bernardino County schools is done by districts or the companies they hire, Dugas said, adding that county tracers offer support.
In late August, the Lake Elsinore Unified School District had a large exhibit at one of its high schools that sent nearly 300 students home at the start of the school year.
Days later, district officials beefed up their COVID-19 reporting system. Now, a small team of internal contact tracers and campus-based liaisons are meticulously tracking positive cases and close contacts. They ask about extracurricular activities or places where students might have been exposed. They are also notifying families and close contacts of quarantine guidelines.
Donna Wolter, director of special education for Lake Elsinore Unified, oversees the district’s contact tracing program. She said keeping seating charts in every classroom, following county quarantine guidelines for students who test positive and show symptoms, and adding more full-time tracers had a huge impact.
There is also a virtual and independent study option for students at home with the virus or due to quarantine. Wolter said the opportunity has been “a relief” for parents concerned about their children missing school.
Lake Elsinore Superintendent Doug Kimberly called contact tracing a “safety net” that gives “students and staff more confidence to return to school.”
Inland districts are recruiting more tracers to help stop the spread of the virus.
Some, like the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint and San Bernardino City Unified School Districts, hire agencies to help oversee tracing and testing. Other unified districts, like Corona-Norco Unified and Riverside, have registered nurses or COVID-19 liaisons assigned to clusters of schools.
Eric Vetere, safety and emergency manager at San Bernardino City Unified, said the district of nearly 50,000 students employs about 120 people from an outside agency to help manage its workload.
“Our district educators have expressed how much they appreciate having a designated COVID-19 liaison because it allows them to focus on their work,” Vetere said.
Like Lake Elsinore, the Temecula Valley and Pomona Unified School Districts also have their own research teams working with schools and county health departments.
Temecula Valley chief nurse Amanda Chapman, who cares for student coronavirus concerns, said tracing has “multiplied exponentially” because most students are back on campus.
But the tedious work makes a difference, especially when families report correctly and follow guidelines, she said.
“Students interact, hold hands, share objects and don’t necessarily think about the risks they pose to each other and family members back home,” Chapman said via email.
She called finding a way to help the district prevent “multiple” outbreaks.
“Families reporting their exposures and positive Covid cases help us ensure we can stop the spread of Covid-19 on campuses and in homes.”
Andrew Zuniga, a Riverside County contact tracing officer who handles school cases, noted that “contact tracing has been around for many years,” but is “even more effective” with technology and modern science.
“We ultimately want to stop the spread of COVID-19, and it won’t happen overnight. But the mission is to try to stop it as much as possible,” Zuniga said. “We need the help of the community to make sure they get vaccinated, get tested, talk to their doctors, stay home if they’re sick.”