AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin today 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.
“This program will provide Maine schools with specialized supports throughout the contact tracing process,” Makin said. “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 about 150 staff members and volunteers.
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, the Maine DOE said this team of nurses will be an invaluable resource to families, teachers, and staff alike as they conduct the contact tracing in Maine schools.
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.
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“The partnership between health and education teams will help protect students, teachers, school staff, and school communities,” Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said.
This effort comes as Maine has seen 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, according to the Maine DOE. 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. 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. Therefore, a positive case within a school can have considerably more close contacts than that of a general community member.
“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,” Emily Poland, DOE School Nurse Consultant, said. “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.”
“As a retired Public Health & School Nurse, with knowledge and skills of communicable disease management, my desire to 'do something' has continued,” Brenda White of Freeport said. “I feel selfishly blessed to be retired as I try to imagine the historic challenge for practicing school nurses during this pandemic. When I received a phone call to work with a team to focus specifically on school contact tracing, of course it was an easy 'YES' for me. This is something I can do from home and still stay safe, and do my small part to assist School Nurses and to control the spread of COVID-19 disease in the State of Maine.”
Additional resources are being put into place by the Maine DOE 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.