FREEPORT — Brenda White had been a retired school nurse for three years when she got a call last week from the Maine Department of Education, which was looking for volunteer nurses to help Maine Centers for Disease Control conduct contact tracing in schools. 

White is among the 21 retired nurses who volunteered over just two days and became part of a team that collectively offers 758 years of nursing experience, according to a Maine Department of Education press release 

“It’s been nine months of wishing I could do something, but yet as a retiree in that high-risk group, you know there’s a limitation of what you can do to protect your own health,” said White. “This is a way for me to help support my community, the state as a whole and those who are trying the very best they can to keep us all healthy.”   

Brenda White, Maine’s 2007 School Nurse of the Year, talks with fourth-grader Colleen Drew, 9, who didn’t feel well Nov. 29, 2007, at Freeport’s Mast Landing School. Jack Milton/Portland Press Herald file photo

“I was hearing concern from school nurses regarding protocol for students with positive cases,” said Emily Poland, a school nurse consultant for the Maine DOE of the catalyst for assembling the team. “People weren’t always hearing from contact tracing nurses when they were supposed to be followed up with due to the sheer numbers of close contacts around positive cases.”

White, who grew up in Howland, said she’s always loved the sciences and knew she wanted to be a nurse since she was 11. She graduated from the nursing program at the University of Southern Maine and got her first job in the profession at Portland Community Health Services. In 1984, White began working part-time as a school nurse in Freeport, and was named Maine’s School Nurse of the Year in 2007. She dedicated the rest of her career to Freeport public schools until she retired in 2017.

Schools in Maine define close contacts as anyone in the same classroom, or other shared space, who tested positive for COVID-19. Because of this, one positive case in schools calls for far more outreach to close contacts in comparison to those in the general population.

According to the Maine DOE release, during the week of Nov. 16-20, roughly half of the close contacts connected with new cases of COVID-19 in Maine were associated with schools.

The new team of nurses received training from the Maine CDC, including how to use an automated platform to notify and monitor close contacts. Since all of the work is done over the phone or online, the nurses can offer their expertise and support students and families from the safety of their own homes.

After receiving a list of close contacts from a positive case, the team is tasked with reaching out to each person and making sure they understand the necessary protocol of quarantining for 14 days after the last exposure, and encouraging them to get tested five to seven days after the last exposure. 

“The quarantine period could present barriers to some families economically,” White said. “So if they need food, need childcare or a letter for work, then part of our role in that conversation is to make a referral for social service support through the department of health and human services, who would then connect the family with appropriate local resources.”   

The nurses also sign families up for the automated platform if they are willing to do so, making it easier for the Maine CDC to monitor the spread of COVID-19.  

“People have been generally very understanding,” White said after her first week on the job. “They know there’s a process and they realize schools and communities are doing what they can to keep children and their families safe.”

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