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School nurses are overwhelmed with contact tracing. Some say it should be suspended

A nurse tests a student for COVID-19 at Brandeis Elementary School in Louisville, Ky.
Jon Cherry
Getty Images
A nurse tests a student for COVID-19 at Brandeis Elementary School in Louisville, Ky.

The current surge of Covid-19 in Maine is not only taking a toll on hospitals — school nurses say they're also overwhelmed. Each new case can require hours of contact tracing on top of the testing, reporting, advising, and other responsibilities that nurses have. In fact, some say the workload is insurmountable, and that the number of close contacts is so high they believe school-based contact tracing should be suspended.

School nurses have absorbed a lot of extra work during the pandemic, but ever since Thanksgiving, Shay Stathoplos of Traip Academy in Kittery says it's gone to a whole new level.

"It's no longer that this is unsustainable. It's undoable." Stathoplos says.

Stathoplos says the number of COVID cases at her high school has grown exponentially. On Thursday morning, she came into work with eight positive cases on her hands. It takes a couple hours each to contact trace, she says, in addition to everything else she needs to manage. And by the time she's done, she says, "It's as though everybody really is a close contact. So I'm not 100% sure what the benefit is of contact tracing right now in schools."

At Camden Hills Regional High School, Janis Hogan says she's also dealing with a surge of positive cases — and close contacts.

"There are so many people right now that are close contacts," Hogan says. "I mean, I have hundreds of kids here who are close contacts."

Hogan says it's impossible to keep up. There are just too many, she says, and contact tracing is increasingly complex.

"Are you 18? Have you been vaccinated? Are you being pool tested? There are too many caveats to be able to spend the time doing it. We can't," Hogan says.

The virus is so widespread at this point, Hogan says, everyone at Camden Hills should just assume they're probably a close contact. As Hogan explains the endless emails and phone calls she needs to send and respond to, she's interrupted by a phone call. It's another positive case. Another mountain of follow-up work added to her day.

"I can't continue like this. I don't have the capacity to continue like this," Hogan says.

Not all nurses think contact tracing should be suspended in schools. Melinda Nadeau is the school nurse at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary in Brunswick and president of the Maine Association of School Nurses. Nadeau says it's important to identify close contacts and notify families to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But she says schools should devise strategies to better support their nurses.

"School nurses cannot manage this by themselves," Nadeau says. "There's no possible way. Like, I already cried today, okay? It's hard."

When asked if the Maine CDC would consider suspending contact tracing in schools, spokesperson Robert Long said in a written response that the agency recognizes the toll the process is taking on school nurses and is grateful for their efforts. He says that the CDC and the Maine Department of Education will engage with school administrators for input on potential changes to guidance in light of the Omicron variant, keeping a priority on in person learning and children's safety.