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Local 5 - weareiowa.com | Des Moines Local News & Weather | Des Moines, Iowa

How do local health departments help schools with contact tracing?

Sandra McGrath with Wright County said schools and local health departments work as a team to help with contact tracing as school starts.

IOWA, USA — With schools being back in session, communities are wondering how COVID-19 contact tracing is done within school districts. 

Local 5 spoke with Sandra McGrath, a registered nurse that works for Epidemiology and Emergency Preparedness in Wright County. 

McGrath clarified that it's not schools that do contact tracing for students and faculty, it's local health departments. 

At the start of Iowa's "Return to Learn" process, McGrath said Wright County health officials paired up with schools within the county. 

She said this team effort was done by mapping out, cohorting students and trying to minimize large groups to where if there were to be a positive, less people would be affected. 

McGrath noted that positives are going to happen, the main goal is to minimize the number of infected to be as little as possible. 

"So when positives occur in Wright County, we'll be notified, we'll talk with the school nurses, the principals ... and kind of take a look at who potentially could have been exposed," McGrath said. 

In general, contact tracing is done by by starting with an individual that has tested positive and working back to find their close contacts.

Nurses and teachers are crucial in contact tracing in schools since they know where these kids are and who they're around all day, according to McGrath.

"They will play a large part in helping us do that because they're going to be the ones that [know] what [a student's] day looks like."

RELATED: What is contact tracing, and how does it work with COVID-19?

"It's going to be totally different for a kindergartner than a high-schooler."

McGrath explained that a person is exposed to COVID-19 when they've been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes or if they've been on the other end of a cough or a sneeze. 

"I expect we'll have a little more contact tracing to do now that our circles kind of widen in school starts, but school is very important and we need to try and get those kids back into somewhat of a normal activity, and learning," McGrath said. 

Parents are excited to get their kids back to school and to have normal activities, McGrath noted, but she stressed the fact that schools will see positive cases and people will need to quarantine if exposed. 

"None of our goals is to stop everybody's life for that moment. Nobody wants to be quarantined," McGrath said, "But it doesn't take long for someone who is positive, maybe not realize it or have that many symptoms, we could all rationalize not feeling good for the day. Before we know it we've passed it on further." 

"We really need to be successful, and we need everybody working together and reporting if they don't feel well. It's nothing to be ashamed of." 

Before anyone realizes it, flu season will also be here. McGrath said this can mean trouble since coronavirus symptoms mirror flu symptoms. 

"It's gonna get messy when people start mirroring symptoms."

"We're kind of those tough, old Iowans where it's a new concept for us to stay home if we're sick," she said. "We all just kind of keep going, and we don't want to keep going to work.

McGrath recommended not only getting your flu shot this fall, but to also keep practicing social distancing and wearing a mask when out in public. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact and staying home if you are sick as main areas of focus for prevention and containment of COVID-19.