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A Public Health Nurse Leads Contact Tracing Efforts In Massachusetts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Contact tracing is going to be an essential tool for corralling the coronavirus as the country reopens. Basically, it's public health detectives tracking down every person who has been exposed to the virus, calling them up one by one and helping them to self-isolate. Yesterday, I spoke with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker who's making a major push for contact tracing in his state where more than 58,000 cases of the virus have now been confirmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE BAKER: The slope is big, and the hill is high. But the one thing I do know is if you don't start walking up it, you'll never get to the top. And we currently have a plan to hire about a thousand people to do this by the end of the month, but there were many, many more people who were interested in doing it.

KELLY: Well, we're going to talk now with one person already doing it, Phyllis Schilp. She is the public health nurse for the town of Sudbury, Mass. She's helping lead contact tracing efforts in the state. And I started by asking her - say her team needed to contact me because I had encountered someone with coronavirus - what would that phone call sound like?

PHYLLIS SCHILP: I would call, and I would say this is Phyllis Schilp. I work for the Sudbury Health Department. I'm calling to inform you that you've been identified as a close contact for somebody who has COVID-19. And then I have to get into their symptoms. Are you currently symptomatic? If they're symptomatic, I have to tell them to isolate and send them for testing. If they're not symptomatic, then they stay at home for 14 days with guidelines provided by the health department. We encourage them to social distance from everybody in their household. We follow up with them to see if they need resources, for example, medication, groceries - sometimes they need thermometers. Then when we - they have questions, we can help them get their questions answered.

KELLY: And what are some of the questions? I mean, what are the typical questions you hear back on a call like that?

SCHILP: Typical questions would be - can I pet my dog? - for example (laughter)...

KELLY: Yeah.

SCHILP: ...Or can I leave my house to go to the grocery store? Can I be around my other family members in my same household if they're not symptomatic? Where can I go to get groceries if I can't leave the house? Do you have a resource for that? Who delivers? I mean, there are so many different questions, depending upon what the individual needs are.

KELLY: What's the answer to the can-I-pet-my-dog question, by the way?

SCHILP: (Laughter). So as you saw recently that - on the news that a dog now has COVID.

KELLY: Yeah.

SCHILP: So I mean, it's really tough for us because the guidelines are constantly changing, so we always need to update ourselves. That's another thing that a big portion of my day is just reading the updated guidelines and getting new information and making sure that I incorporate that into my public health nursing practice.

KELLY: It must also be tough - I imagine, you know, so much of your profession and work must deal with comforting people - (laughter) you know? - being a public health nurse. And I wonder is it difficult trying to do all of this by phone, unable to actually see any of the people you're trying to help?

SCHILP: Yeah, so it has been very different. I'm used to being in the community, doing screenings and visiting with seniors and being a more hands-on kind of public health nurse. So yes, that has been extremely challenging for me - not being hands-on.

KELLY: Was contact tracing something you had worked on before, something you were familiar with? I will confess it wasn't a term I was familiar with before this pandemic.

SCHILP: Yes, as public health nurses, we do contact tracing. That's part of our job for many different diseases. But I've never had to do full-time contact tracing. I never signed up for that (laughter).

KELLY: Yeah.

SCHILP: So that has been a challenge.

KELLY: It sounds like this time has maybe given other people in your town a chance to better understand what it is you do every day.

SCHILP: One good thing about this pandemic is that it does shed light on our jobs and how we keep our communities healthy.

KELLY: Well, Phyllis Schilp, thank you very much.

SCHILP: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

KELLY: She's the public health nurse for the town of Sudbury, Mass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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