PEABODY — Normally, when a family gets a call from a school nurse, it might be about a student’s absence, medications or a fall on the playground.
With Peabody schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a dozen school nurses are still keeping busy as they now check-in by phone with people who test positive for the disease and others who, by association, may be infected.
The school nurses are actually employees of the city’s Health Department, and they have been pressed into service to provide surveillance of coronavirus patients and track down and communicate with people these individuals have been in contact with, a practice called contact tracing. Those contacts may be at risk, or perhaps asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state was teaming up with Boston-based Partners in Health to deploy about 1,000 trained volunteers to do this same type of work, which would relieve some of the burden on local health officials.
The Peabody nurses are also bolstering the work of the Health Department’s staff of inspectors and administrative assistants who are providing guidance to businesses about essential services and best practices for a safe work environment, and providing information to ease the community’s anxiety, said Health Director Sharon Cameron.
When the nurses make contact with patients, they provide them with information about the need to quarantine at home, check in on them periodically, and track who they may have come into contact with, so that these people can also isolate at home.
Another team of school nurses is busy fielding questions from businesses and the public about COVID-19, and yet another team is keeping abreast of the ever-changing information about how to deal with the pandemic from state and federal officials. The nurses are also trying to come up with ways to connect with the kids they used to see in school every day.
“Transitioning from the school nurse thought process to this whole undertaking of the COVID pandemic response with the surveillance and the investigation piece of it has been quite a learning curve,” said Brenda Wolff, the school nurse leader, “and one that we have had to jump in pretty quickly.”
Wolff said it has been difficult for school nurses to not be in contact with families and children they otherwise see on a regular basis. One team of nurses has been tasked with reconnecting with the school community, including using social media and the Peabody Health Department’s Facebook page to post pictures of school nurses who hold up signs with words of encouragement, or ways to find resources for one’s emotional well being.
“Normally, if we were in school, we would be able to have that day-in, day-out communication with them and provide those resources right then and there for them,” Wolff said, “but because we’re not in school with them, and we’re disconnected from them, we want to be able, again, to get that message out there that even though we are not with you, we are still with you.”
As for the surveillance work — which can take place every day at all hours — it’s critical as the city has seen a spike in cases in recent days.
As of April 3, the city had 79 confirmed cases. This is a 75% increase from 45 cases on April 1, when Cameron briefed the Board of Health during a virtual meeting. Increased testing and community transmission are the reasons for the increase in cases, she said.
“If anything, it has been really helpful,” said Chassea Robinson, Peabody’s public health nurse, “because for the last couple of weeks, a lot of people have just been at home, so we are seeing more and more that their close contacts are just their household members so that the circle of exposure is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Testing is also more available than it was two weeks ago, she noted.
“The more testing we do, the more cases we’ll see,” she said. The turnaround time for tests, which are for those with symptoms, is now 24 to 48 hours, not five days, although there can be delays.
The work the school nurses are doing is paid for with state money to help with the response to the pandemic, Cameron explained.
The state gave $200,000 to the North Shore Shared Public Health Services Program, a collaboration of eight public health programs, with Salem serving as the host community for the funding, Cameron said.
Peabody’s share of this grant was $40,000, and Cameron said most of that money is going to support expanded surveillance and the tools, such as phones, nurses need to do follow-up.
It’s not enough money to cover all of the surveillance costs, “but it gets us off to a good start,” she said.