Already riddled with cases, schools mainly seek contacts alone

Health center waiting room at Middlebury Union High School. Photo by Kelly Landwehr

When cases of Covid-19 surfaced in her schools last year, Montpelier-Roxbury superintendent Libby Bonesteel said she had cell phone numbers for several people she could call at the Department of Health.

“Like clockwork,” she said, a conference call would be scheduled within the hour – or at 8 a.m. the next morning if test results arrived late at night – to discuss the situation and determine an outcome. way forward.

But this year, when five cases surfaced at his schools in the first week of class, Bonesteel called an automated phone line. And then she waited. For days.

Districts have handled the heavy lifting on contact tracing since late last fall, when the state announced amid a wave of Covid-19 that educators would be tasked with calling close contacts when infected people appear in schools.

Yet, according to administrators and nurses, schools could then rely on almost immediate consultation with health department workers to make crucial decisions about who should quarantine and whether classrooms – or entire schools. – should switch to distance learning.

Now many say it often takes days before you can get someone on the phone. This means that administrators – or, if the district is lucky enough to find one, school nurses – are left to their own devices to interpret scarce written state direction in varying and rapidly changing situations.

Kelly Landwehr, Head Nurse at Middlebury Union High School. Photo by Sarah Soule

“Immediacy is key,” said Kelly Landwehr, president-elect of the Vermont State School Nurses Association and school nurse at Middlebury Union High School.

Landwehr, who also serves as her district’s Covid-19 coordinator, said on Wednesday that she encountered the problem the day before. An entire class had just returned from quarantine when the district learned that another positive case was affecting the class.

“I needed some advice on what to do. And get that immediate response from [health department] just isn’t something I’ve been successful with, ”she said.

The state’s contact tracing workforce for the whole of 2020 has been greatly increased within the Department of Health’s own ranks, with those staff setting aside regular duties to organize a response to the pandemic. But with cases declining, the state in May turned most of its contact tracing work to AM Trace, a private company based in Virginia.

In an email, Department of Health spokesman Ben Truman acknowledged that the department was being strained by the sudden and stubborn increase in cases.

“With the boom, pressures ranging from staffing to technology have arisen, and it would be naive to ignore the very real frustrations our schools and administrators feel as they deal with the impact on their capacity. to ensure the proper functioning of schools, “he wrote.

The department has started redeploying some staff to help with contact tracing, Truman said. He added that he is also working to resolve issues with his phone system.

“After an initial patch, we found that more technical work was needed, and this has been or will soon be resolved,” he said on Wednesday.

Nurses and school superintendents have repeatedly expressed sympathy for the health service workers, whom they praised for their exemplary work last year.

But educators say they too are exhausted. And they end up with much less state support than they were when overall health conditions were significantly better. In the first month of investigation last year, the state recorded just five cases of the virus in schools across the state. In the first two weeks of school this year, the state has already reported 81.

A school nurse, Sophia Hall, who serves as the Covid-19 coordinator in the Kingdom East School District, said she has been tracing contacts daily since August 21 – a full week before a single child entered the schools. buildings in his district. (Staff were present for commissioning and planning.)

“We don’t have a home life. We’re here 12 to 14 hours a day, ”said Clayton Wetzel, Vermont director of the National Association of School Nurses.

There’s a lot of federal money available to hire more people, he said, but schools are struggling to hire at all levels – and nurses, who can earn much higher salaries in institutions. health, are even more difficult to recruit.

“I think the whole educational hierarchy is really exhausted overall,” he said.

And since the state outsourced its contact tracing work, complaints have piled up about response times, both inside and outside the school. For most of August, contact tracers called only 37% of people positive for Covid-19 within 24 hours of their diagnosis, Seven Days reported this week. In earlier stages of the pandemic, Vermont contact tracers reached infected people within 24 hours of their test results more than 90 percent of the time.

Larger delays in contact tracing also have an impact on schools, Landwehr said, as outbreaks that start outside of school are less likely to be detected before spreading to schools. And even if they don’t, parents will often call the school for information if the health department doesn’t call them back.

“It adds a lot of anxiety to families, again, especially in small communities where you might have a school of 70 kids, and there’s a good chance a lot of them will be playing together throughout the day. week or out of school, ”she said.

In a written statement, Steven Crim, director of government affairs at AM Trace, said that the company’s teams “in close coordination and collaboration with the state, are working seven days a week to reach as many people as possible. and their close contacts as soon as possible “.

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