25 Investigates: School nurses helping local boards of health with contact tracing

Governor Charlie Baker says one of the keys to getting ‘back to normal’ is contact tracing. 25 Investigates has learned school nurses have been doing that important work for weeks, collecting data through local boards of health to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Boston 25 News anchor Kerry Kavanaugh spoke with school nurses who say they’re playing an unexpected role guiding their communities out of this crisis.

“School nursing is very similar to public health nursing in that we manage outbreaks of contagious diseases and we contact parents and we send out notifications,” said registered nurse Patty Comeau, the lead school nurse in Methuen.

“We’ve got these skills that we use every single day,” said registered nurse Karen Roberto, a school nurse in the city of Medford.

School nurses are putting those skills to use helping their communities battle a pandemic.

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“Many times we’re the ones who tell them their case is positive, they may not even know that yet,” Comeau said.

When asked if she envisioned herself playing such an important role, Comeau had this to say.

“Absolutely not,” she responded.

When a person with coronavirus is recovering at home, it’s upon local boards of health to track those cases. Those boards are already stretched thin. That’s where school nurses are stepping up.

“I’m definitely spending at least a half hour with each of the people that I’m calling, making sure that they are ok, that they’re personally getting better and assessing them medically,” Roberto said.

Roberto added that each day she gets assigned new cases. She’s supporting and advising those who are sick but also helping them identify who they’ve had close contact with while contagious. All that information is added to a state database, Maven. This is contact tracing.

“It’s just becoming too much for out department. So, with over 300 cases, out school RNs have the experience that we so desperately need to get these contacts traced as soon as possible,” said Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo Koehn, who added that it’s all about slowing the spread.

And, with the school nurses, Lungo-Koehn says Medford has been to stay on top of the more than 320 cases in the city.

“We’re finding that this is very heavy-lifting work because some of these people have loved ones that are even in the hospital on vents in [the] ICU, and we have to tell them that they can’t go and visit them because they’re on quarantine,” Comeau said.

She went on to say that they’re also providing an emotional support system to many who are sick and alone.

“Anything that we can do, that’s how nurses are, whatever you can do, you just do it. You pitch in,” Comeau said.

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“I’m able to actually fulfill my nursing role and apply my nursing skills, it definitely is a good feeling,” Roberto said.

Governor Charlie Baker has said Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to implement a tracing program. As of last week, he said, 176 people have been trained so far and hundreds of additional people are being trained and onboarded to make these important calls in the coming weeks.

25 investigates has learned school nurses wish to play a bigger role in this. They sent the following letter to the governor, offering to help the state: