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Murray oversees Saratoga County Health Department team working to minimize spread of COVID-19

Rising to the Challenge

Murray oversees Saratoga County Health Department team working to minimize spread of COVID-19

Contact tracing grueling but rewarding work
Murray oversees Saratoga County Health Department team working to minimize spread of COVID-19
Erin Murray answers a call at her Saratoga County Department of Public Health office on April 14.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  

SARATOGA COUNTY — Nurses are used to seeing people at their most vulnerable: when they’re anxious and ill, uncertain of the future. 

It’s something Erin Murray has dealt with for years as a registered nurse, as well as a BSN (bachelor of science in nursing degree) and as a public health supervisor with the Saratoga County Department of Health, where she’s worked the past 18 years. She’s seeing the uncertainty perhaps now more than ever as people in the county deal with COVID-19. 

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Murray, a Colonie native and Saratoga Springs resident, has been overseeing the contact tracing team at the department for the past few weeks, working seven days a week to minimize the spread of the virus.

Earlier this month, in between taking calls from residents and tracking down people who may have been exposed to the virus, Murray took a few minutes to talk with The Gazette about what life has been like on the job. 

Q: What does your job usually entail?

A: Normally, I supervise prevention programs, things like our communicable diseases program. I oversee our immunization program, which includes vaccinating children going back to school, and providing education to the providers out in the community about the importance of vaccines and getting their rates up to standard. I oversee our STD prevention program, our rabies prevention program. We do a lot of outreach in the community. 

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: How did you come into this position with the contact tracing group?

A: This is part of what I do. As this all took off, we’ve been working on preparing for COVID-19 coming into our community since probably February, maybe the end of January. Every day we would sit on conference calls and just kind of get our community partners together, and come up with a plan for when it did hit.

There [are] two of our supervisors, I’m here at the incident command COVID-19 center and the other supervisor is back at the office making sure that all of the other programs are being covered, because we do still have to do some basic public health work. 

Q: So what does it mean to be part of the contact tracing group?  

A: When we get positive cases or presumptive positive cases in our county, people that maybe didn’t test positive but we know have all the symptoms, or maybe there was no testing available and they have symptoms, we treat them as positive. Then we go back and we trace all their contacts, and we make sure that we put all those people in quarantine and we give them education on what to do. Then from there we also identify [if] they’re ill, and if they are we take a different course and we put them into isolation. 

We’re also following any contacts that are in our county where the index case would perhaps be in another county. Those get faxed over to us, and we follow up on those and put those patients in quarantine.

Then there’s another [group] that follows these patients every single day until the end of their quarantine or their isolation. 

Q: How do you go about finding all these people?

A: All reportable diseases go through this statewide system called ECLRS. We run that program every morning and throughout the day.

We find our positive cases and those are just lab-confirmed cases. When we get those we make a case and give it to a nurse, and that nurse calls that patient up and goes through the whole thing. When we find out [when their] onset of symptoms [was], the rule of thumb is you go back 48 hours and you find out all the things [they’ve done] and all the places they’ve been, and who they were with for that time frame. Then we get their story and we contact all of those people or all of those places, and we let them know that a positive person has been in contact with them. We then put them in quarantine because we want to make sure that they’re not going to get sick for 14 days. 

Q: On average, how many calls are you making each day?

A: A lot. It is a long day and it is constant calls. Some people at this point are getting the messaging and they’re hearing us. They hunker in their house and they haven’t gone anywhere, and they’re easy contact cases. [In] other cases they’ve been to work, or they work in health care or they’ve been to a bunch of places and they’ve been with people, not social distancing, and those would require a tremendous [number] of calls and follow-ups. So it just depends on the person and the case. 

We’ve got right now six nurses in the contact-tracing room, and then I’ve got two nurses doing triage calls and discharges, and I’m overseeing all of that plus doing triages and whatever else comes my way. 

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in contact tracing?

A: Sometimes it’s just so lengthy. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because you [do] one case all day and you know you’ve got so many left to do before you go home. Obviously, we have to stop at some point, but the biggest challenge would be when you get a really heavy case where there’s so many contacts, it will take you all day just to do one. It’s a little discouraging because you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished a lot. 

Q: Along the way, have there also been some rewarding moments?

A: Absolutely. I do a little team meeting every morning to keep the staff motivated and answer questions, because guidance comes out so fast we want to make sure we’re always using the most current guidance, so I started doing a morning briefing. 

 

[These] are long, hard days and it’s really important that we’re taking care of ourselves and taking breaks. So we try to talk about those moments and we just feel very blessed. I say this over and over that, I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to be involved in something and offer help and guidance in crisis. We can give people a little peace of mind and education that can maybe bring down their anxiety a little bit. 

Q: I’m sure it’s easier to see the positives when you’re seeing people who recover from this. 

A: We embrace those wins. We share those as a group because those are the things that keep you going. It is long hard days and we’re in this for the long haul. The community support has been amazing. The support in the county has been tremendous. It’s been very encouraging. 

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: Are you all there Monday through Friday?

A: No. It’s seven days a week and it’s long hours. We have an amazing team. That’s another positive thing that you see. In times like these everybody rises. They just rise to the occasion. 

Q: Do you have a sense of how long you’re going to be there?

A: We really don’t know. I foresee this going on for at least a couple months, but I really don’t know. It’s all so new.

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