Communities continue contact tracing, without state support

  • Connie Schwaiger, the public health nurse for COVID contact tracing in the Foothills District, is shown in Goshen, Oct. 21, 2020. The district’s towns are Chesterfield, Williamsburg, Goshen, Westhampton and Whately. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2022 9:00:41 PM
Modified: 1/18/2022 8:59:36 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As COVID-19 cases reach unprecedented levels in the current wave, communities are continuing to conduct contact tracing work for the disease, even as the infrastructure and protocols around the practice have shifted since the early days of the pandemic.

Last month, the state’s COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative (CTC) ceased operation, and its existence is missed in Easthampton.

“They could cover us,” said Bri Eichstaedt, Easthampton’s public health director. “We’re struggling right now to even call all of our cases.”

Eichstaedt said the CTC had hundreds of contact tracers, which allowed it to serve as a backstop for the commonwealth’s cities and towns.

Currently, Easthampton has hundreds of COVID-19 cases. Before the current wave, the most new cases reported in a week in the city was 92.

In addition to the CTC’s disbandment, protocols have also changed in the commonwealth around how contact tracing is done. Municipalities are no longer asked to contact all the close contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19, and they aren’t asked to reach out to every positive case.

Vivian Franklin is a public health nurse for the city of Northampton, which also does contact tracing for Hatfield, Hadley and Chesterfield. Additionally, it assists on cases in Easthampton, Amherst and Granby when requested by the health departments in those communities.

She said that during the CTC’s existence, Northampton was able to cover its cases on its own and mainly used the CTC for specialized services.

Because of the current wave, Franklin said Northampton is having to prioritize its cases, although she said it makes an effort to reach out to as many as possible. However, when asked if the continued existence of the CTC could help, Franklin said that she doesn’t know if any amount of increased staffing could keep up with cases.

As for what is being prioritized, Franklin cited school-aged cases and cases in congregant settings such as day care and long-term care facilities.

Franklin said the city is able to reach 70% of cases on the first try via phone or text, and that most of those who aren’t reached get back to them quickly.

Expertise missed

Jennifer Brown is the health director for Amherst and she also said that Amherst has had to triage its contact tracing — listing K-12 students, children younger than 5, people younger than 18 and cases in the same household as priority categories.

Like Eichstaedt, Brown spoke fondly about the CTC.

“We sure do miss them,” she said. “They just had such expertise.”

However, she said the CTC gave the local public health professionals enough lead time to figure out what they would do about contact tracing, and she noted that the town has hired a former CTC worker to do contact tracing for Amherst.

“He is prioritizing the cases,” Brown said.

Brown also noted that the University of Massachusetts does contact tracing for its own community, as well as the partnership the town has with Northampton. Additionally, she noted that contact tracing isn’t only about tracing the course of the disease in the community.

“We really offer them services,” she said of those reached through contact tracing.

Small communities have also continued contact tracing work.

Donna Gibson, chairwoman of the Williamsburg Board of Health, said the Foothills Health District hired a nurse, Mike Archbald, to do contact tracing for its communities before the CTC was disbanded. The district consists of the towns of Whately, Goshen, Williamsburg and Westhampton.

“He’s been really busy,” Gibson said.

Because the district brought on Archbald to do the work, she said the CTC disbandment really hasn’t affected it.

Archbald said his caseload has been manageable enough in his communities that he still reaches out to the close contacts of those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

“I still see that as important,” he said.

However, Archbald said that the vast majority of people that he speaks to have already contacted their close contacts.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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