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Contact Tracing For Covid-19 In N.H. Becoming 'More Complex,' Officials Say

photo of health care workers in scrubs
The National Guard

Positive COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire are becoming harder to investigate and manage, state health officials say.

When the pandemic first hit the state in March, a person who tested positive typically had about three close contacts who needed to be notified, health officials said. With sports teams resuming play, and schools and other venues reopening, New Hampshire Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette says people who have tested positive now typically have between five and six close contacts.

Shibinette said it may take “a couple of hours, or a day, to do the full case investigation and notify everybody” of their exposure and need to quarantine. Some school districts and parents, however, say it’s taken more than 24 hours – and in some cases, several days – for contact tracers to tell students, parents, and teachers to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19.

In Concord Friday, after a student at Christa McAuliffe School tested positive, state health officials told the district that they would not be able to do contact tracing within two days, according to an email sent to parents. Instead, the state instructed school officials to handle the contact tracing themselves by notifying people who may have come into contact with the infected student.

At a press conference on Thursday, Shibinette said delays are due, in part, to the new rapid antigen test, which allows patients to learn of their results far earlier than state health officials might.

“Often times, we’ll have families start notifying their loved ones, maybe take to social media or call the principal at the school," Shibinette said. "Meanwhile, public health may not get that official report until the next day."

In many school-related cases, school nurses play an important role in the contact tracing process.

District officials in Franklin said that their school nurse spearheaded contact tracing with a recent positive COVID-19 case, after the state health department told them its contact tracers were so backed up.

Paula MacKinnon, president of the New Hampshire School Nurses’ Association, said that school nurses often do the preliminary contact tracing before the state steps in.

“That’s to be expected,” she said. “We’re an arm of public health.”

MacKinnon encouraged families and staff to contact their school after a positive case, given the likelihood that the state’s contact tracing could take several days. Shibinette also said school nurses may be the first to contact families and tell them to quarantine.

MacKinnon said most of the school community is responsive, but some parents don't want to comply with school nurses.

"When this started . . . we were all heroes," she said. "Now we're enemies in the minds of some."

In response to rising COVID-19 cases and increasing complexity, the state health department rehired 30 members of the New Hampshire National Guard this week to help with contact tracing.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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