Behind the scenes of COVID-19 contact tracing

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Ashlyn Gillespie

Principal Jeremy Mitchell measures the distance between desks to aid in contact tracing. After measuring the desks, Mitchell gave the information to Assistant Principal Kate Piffel, who used seating charts to determine close contacts. “Dr. Mitchell measures the desks to see how far apart they are because if they are within six feet [there is a] 98% chance that those students are going to have to quarantine if they’re that close to another student,” Piffel said.

By Ellie West, Parkway West High School

Assistant Principal Kate Piffel sits at her desk, a phone balanced next to her ear. An overstuffed black binder lays open on her desk and she reads something from it, listening thoughtfully to the response from the person on the other end of the phone. Piffel is fulfilling the latest part of her job: contact tracing.

Contact tracing is a method used to determine close contacts and alert them of the need to quarantine after they are exposed to COVID-19. St. Louis County Health Department and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommend a 14-day quarantine period following close contact with an individual who tested positive or exhibited symptoms. 

“Contact tracing provides the information to make decisions about isolation and quarantine. The isolation of positive cases and quarantine of those exposed slows the spread of COVID-19. It is very important to the health of our community,” school nurse Lois Burch said.

Burch described the importance of alerting school health officials as soon as symptoms begin or a test comes back positive. This allows them to begin the contact tracing process to curb any further spread.

“The difficulty is that contact tracing is time-consuming. There are several questions such as when symptoms start or date of positive test that are important to contact tracing,” Burch said. “Through discussion about what symptoms are present, where the individual has been, who they have been in contact with, the distance of the person with COVID-19 from others and the amount of time they have been together, we determine who will need to quarantine.”

Sophomore Alice Rashce is familiar with this process, having been quarantined herself in early November, as one of 57 students who tested positive during in-person learning.

“When my second rapid test came back positive, my doctor and the school nurse advised me of the quarantine procedures and [about] having to quarantine from school and sports for 14 days,” Rasche said. “I was very bored, tired and unmotivated and the 14 days of quarantining did not go by very quickly. I was frustrated because I had to miss out on my first two weeks of high school swim practice and in-person learning,” Rasche said.

Piffel, who does contact tracing alongside Burch and Athletic Director Brian Kessler, described what happens after they receive word of a case like Rasche’s. 

“[If someone] tested positive and was in the building 48 hours prior to symptoms developing, they are contagious. Dr. Mitchell and Mrs. Lowenstein assist us by getting seating charts and attendance and determining how far apart students and staff were from a positive case,” Piffel said. “I then create a chart of all students [and] staff who were considered a close contact, within six feet of a positive case for a cumulative 15 minutes over 24 hours, and share that with grade level offices, so we can start calling parents and pulling students from class as they need to be quarantining.”

When we get word of a case, it can take a large chunk [of time], if not all day. I’ll get calls and emails on the weekends and at night. I’m not a principal 24/7 so that can be tough.”

— Kate Piffel

Piffel learned to contact trace from an online course through Johns Hopkins University, which she took over the summer in preparation for a return to in-person learning. She outlines a few steps for students and staff to keep them safe as well as to make the contact tracing process easier.

“Wearing a mask and wearing it appropriately, over the mouth and nose. If you’re not eating at lunch, I know it’s really nice to be able to have the mask off, but if you’re not eating, having the mask back on [can help],” Piffel said. “Washing your hands, limiting your bubble; I really do believe it’s about social distancing 100%, keeping that mask on and keeping your bubble small.”

Piffel noted the behind the scenes work that goes into the process, from filling out Google Forms of quarantine data for every isolated individual to Mitchell measuring the distance between desks to determine who needs to isolate.

“This is my job now. For me personally, it can be difficult, because I’m the principal of the junior class. I want to be helping my kids and helping them to think about the future and focusing on them. When we get word of a case, it can take a large chunk [of time], if not all day. I’ll get calls and emails on the weekends and at night and I like to have my downtime. I’m not a principal 24/7 so that can be tough,” Piffel said.

Piffel and the other contact tracers adhere to St. Louis County guidelines for quarantining, meaning that students and staff must stay home for 14 days after being exposed to a positive case, even if they test negative during that time.

“The risk of exposure could kill somebody. It’s a little risk, but we’re not going to diminish that. I don’t want anybody to die on my watch, that’s how I’m taking it. [COVID-19 is] very serious [for] people with health conditions [and] it affects everybody differently, so I just want to make sure that all of our students and staff are safe,” Piffel said.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on February 22, 2021.