Special partnership enhances contact tracing at OSU and beyond
Thursday, October 1, 2020
Over the last 10 years, three women have been a health shield for the Oklahoma State University community, coordinating responses to such threats as the flu, meningitis and H1N1.
Since February, Oklahoma State University’s Pamela Stokes, Stillwater Medical Center’s Necia Kimber and Oklahoma State Department of Health Regional Administrative Director Kelli Rader have formed a unified front in contact tracing.
When a new case arises under one of the trio’s purview, the other two are among the first to know, and contact tracing begins immediately. Stokes is associate director of clinical operations for OSU University Health Services. Kimber is director of infection control at Stillwater Medical Center.
“I know that they’re always there, and I wouldn’t bat an eye to text either one of them at midnight,” Kimber said. “And they would do the same to me.
“The impact benefits everybody. We work as one. We work together instead of against each other. And I think you’ll find that in a lot of towns and hospitals, you just don’t have that foundation that the three of us have together.”
Stokes said communication and prevention are among their top weapons in the fight against COVID-19.
“The Payne County Health Department is really helping OSU out because there are so many contacts we have to call, but I think the unique part of our partnership is that being a part of [University Health Services] we’re at least able to contact positive individuals and instruct them to isolate and check on their health,” she said. “And we can do that before Payne County [Health Department employees] even get to work the next morning.”
When Stokes reviews positive cases in the morning, she frequently texts Kimber and Rader to keep them updated.
“From there, Payne County Health Department staff go through the lengthy process of telling everybody who came into contact with a COVID-positive patient 48 hours prior to their positive test,” she said. “They get a running list of those names and numbers, and they start calling.”
Stokes said their unified approach to contact tracing isn’t the norm. When tracking cases together, they boost their ability to limit the spread of COVID-19. Stokes said that can be challenging for state and local health officials when universities are involved because students’ permanent addresses are often outside their university communities.
“Oftentimes we can close the loop to make sure all those people have been spoken with,” she said. “If people don’t answer, sometimes it’s a process that could last several days, but University Health Services really shortens that process.
“I think that just having this relationship allows us to stop it before even one person is exposed. I feel the relationship I have with my county health department is rare and many local universities may not have the same clinical resources we do. I think it speaks too of the leadership at OSU but also how great Stillwater Medical Center and Payne County are. I just think that the community should feel protected because of the bond that we have.”
Jared Taylor, Oklahoma interim state epidemiologist and OSU associate professor of veterinary pathobiology, called the partnership unique.
“Contact tracing is always difficult, but is especially complicated in a university community,” he said. “Kelli, Pamela, Necia and their whole office have shown tremendous dedication to the task and have had remarkable success due to their attitude and professionalism. We're fortunate to have them serving Stillwater and the surrounding communities.”
Kimber said the group’s effectiveness in corralling COVID-19 comes not from a high-tech medical instrument, but a human one: trust.
“I’ve known Pam [Stokes] and watched her grow to become an amazing nurse and an amazing RN,” she said, noting she was once one of Stokes’s instructors in certified nursing assistant courses. “So I’ve known her for about 10-12 years. And Kelli [Rader], when she took over at the Payne County Health Department about five years ago, we already had that relationship in place with the previous administration there, and we just carried it over.
“That trust is so deep that I stake what I’m doing in my position at the hospital as infectious disease director on what I’m hearing and learning from them.”
Rader said the longevity of their working relationship makes all the difference, and it’s only been strengthened during the pandemic.
“If we have information we can share with her regarding students and regarding health — we definitely follow HIPAA requirements, which allow us to share information as health entities — we share that so we all have a good understanding of what’s happening in the community. We are following up and doing investigations and contact tracing and are providing one another with updates, resources and guidance.
“We communicate on a daily basis with [University Health Services], and they have been a conduit to other areas in the university, as far as making sure education is available and working with other groups across the university regarding guidance and education. We have been working with them since before we had the disease in the U.S. We started working with them in February to determine what this was going to look like if and when we started seeing illness in Stillwater, Oklahoma.”
Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, and Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, made statements encouraging governors to keep students on college campuses to help contain and track the virus. Rader said both the university and Stillwater Medical Center have been transparent and vibrant partners in the process, which has enhanced their ability to combat the virus in Stillwater and the surrounding communities.
“OSU has worked very hard from the very beginning to make sure there are resources available for students who needed to quarantine and isolate on campus,” she said. “That has been a huge part of their planning. Sometimes families may or may not have that ability.
“They have been alert, they have been planning, they have been communicating with the local health department, with the state department of health, with their university partners to plan to respond, to mitigate, to educate and to guide their university community.”
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