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Healthcare

School Principals Help With Contact Tracing Amid COVID-19 Surge In Michigan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Michigan, most public school students have returned to in-person learning, but that comes as the state is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Overwhelmed health departments don't have enough staff to keep up with contact tracing, so instead, they're turning to the schools themselves. Brett Dahlberg of member station WCMU reports.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: Chris Hodges is the principal of Gaylord High School in northern Michigan.

CHRIS HODGES: I definitely thought, you know, why am I doing this?

DAHLBERG: But here he is, after the school day is over, walking the almost empty halls with a laptop and a tape measure.

HODGES: So this is the first classroom we're going to go in right here.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Hi.

HODGES: Hi. So I'm coming to measure desks.

DAHLBERG: The local health department has told Hodges that one of his students tested positive. She was in this room for yearbook class in mid-April when she might have been contagious. She went home sick, and a few days later, got her test results back. While teachers here are spacing their desks out as much as possible, sometimes they're not exactly 6 feet apart from person to person.

In this class, Chris Hodges finds two students who sat just shy of 6 feet away from their classmate who tested positive. They'll now have to quarantine for two weeks from the date of their last exposure. Hodges will call their families and tell the local health department, so their staff can follow up.

Adriane Casalotti is with the National Association of County and City Health Officials. She says this kind of relationship between schools and health departments, while unusual, is now necessary when states go through surges.

ADRIANE CASALOTTI: With COVID, every second counts. So any delay in getting that information from the school to the health department could mean that additional people are being exposed. We also, from the public health system side, need to have visibility to how the disease is being spread in the community at any given time.

DAHLBERG: Lisa Peacock is the health officer at Hodges' local health department and oversees contact tracing. She says, once she gets the names of students who have to quarantine, her staff will also get in touch with them to explain the details. Peacock says, in a lot of cases, the health department needs more information than the school principal can gather. They might have to do a more detailed investigation or discern whether there's a coronavirus variant involved. But she says, without schools doing the initial tracing, it would be impossible for her department to keep up with the recent spike in cases.

LISA PEACOCK: It's literally impossible if we didn't have their involvement.

DAHLBERG: Back at Gaylord High, Chris Hodges has just finished his classroom visits. He now has the unpleasant task of calling 14 families of students who had close contact with the sick classmate. It's a lot, he says, but it's better than one time last month, when he had 15 students test positive in a single day, and each of them had several close contacts. Hodges says another reason health departments work with principals now is that they can often get in touch with these families the quickest.

HODGES: We want to make those phone calls as soon as we can Sunday night or Saturday night, so that those students aren't at work, aren't at church, aren't going to other people's houses. We want to prevent the spread of COVID not only inside our walls, but in our community.

DAHLBERG: So Hodges calls up the first parent on his list.

HODGES: Hi. It's Chris. How are you? I'm calling to let you know that we learned of a positive COVID-19 case today.

DAHLBERG: Michigan might be moving past the peak of this surge, but the state health department is still tracking hundreds of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. So while much of the rest of the country is moving toward post-vaccine life, health workers here are still struggling to keep up with the virus is spread.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.