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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Volunteers Take On Important Roles In Idaho's Response To The Pandemic

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A health investigator points to a board showing a hypothetical case that serves as a training tool to teach new contact tracers how to track all the people they need to reach out to after a person tests positive for COVID-19.

The coronavirus has, at times, stretched public health resources in Idaho. It has required retired doctors, school nurses and even college students to help out with the pandemic’s response.


Gail Richardson is a school nurse in the Magic Valley. With students at home, she knew she’d have some extra time on her hands. A couple weeks after schools closed, she started volunteering with the South Central Public Health District to make calls to people who tested positive for the coronavirus. 

“We go over what were their initial symptoms, what are symptoms that they’re still having," she said.

Public health officials check in with people each day to try to learn more about the virus, to answer questions and to encourage people to continue to follow social distancing guidelines.

Some people making the phone calls are volunteers through the Medical Reserve Corps, a nationwide group of volunteers that assists in responding to natural disasters, public health crises and other emergencies. They might be retired nurses, doctors and EMTs, school nurses, or during the pandemic, even college students studying away from campus.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare estimates around 3,500 people are listed as active members. Each local health district manages its own corps, and several have activated this group or sought more volunteers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Richardson signed up, completed a quick training and began working almost immediately. After doing the daily check-ins for a while, she started calling people who were on the list of close contacts of those who tested positive, a process called contact tracing

“Who may be contacts that we need to let know that they might need to quarantine as well," she said.


Now Richardson is getting paid for doing contact tracing part-time, on a temporary basis. On some days, she is on the phone from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., sorting through a web of relationships, educating people, leaving messages and waiting for them to call back later.


Sometimes the conversations are tough. She’ll call a person who was in contact with someone who tested positive. She can’t tell them who that person is, but she tells them they have to self-quarantine for 14 days.


Richardson said she's found it's important to establish trust.


“You can’t just say, ‘Well, our rules are, you can’t leave your house for 14 days,' and then they tell you, ‘What am I going to do about this, or that or the other?’ And you can’t just go, ‘Well, I don’t know, but that’s what the rules are.'"


She said people on the receiving end of these calls are more concerned than resistant. They might be worried about telling their boss they can’t show up to work, so the public health district has a letter people can provide to employers explaining why they have to isolate. Or, they might be anxious if they have a high-risk family member who they could’ve unknowingly exposed. So she explains how they can stay safe.


“You really have to listen to people, and realize what their concerns are, and realize that their concerns are real concerns," she said.


When there are more confirmed cases, it usually means more phone calls to notify people that they might've been exposed. In late March through early April, some public health districts, including South Central Public Health District, were overwhelmed to the point of being unable to complete thorough investigations for each case.


Now, Idaho is trying to ramp up its contact tracing efforts to deal with an increase in cases as the state moves through its reopening plan. More than 200 people have been trained in the process and the state says it’d like to get that number closer to 500. Public health employees from a variety of departments are stepping in to help. Otherwise, the state is relying on volunteers and people like Richardson to get the job done. 


Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 


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