Nurse protects lives through contact tracing, vaccinations

By ALEX MacLEAN The Union Democrat



Alberta Newspaper Group


Rebecca Edmonds is part of a small team of public health nurses in Tuolumne County who have spent the past year working days, nights and weekends with the goal of saving as many lives as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Edmonds said it was a quiet night at the county Public Health Department's office on Cedar Road in Sonora when she received the first alert from the California Department of Public Health about a new virus coming out of Wuhan, China. “They do that for novel viruses,” she said of the alert. “I've seen them before, but they don't turn into a pandemic.” More alerts rolled in over the next several weeks, and soon most of Edmonds' time was focused on preparing an emergency response to the growing threat. The department activated an emergency operations center on Feb. 28, followed by the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus outbreak as a global pandemic on March 11. “We've been talking about pandemics and novel viruses for years,” she said. “We had a lot of plans in place that we were ready to pull out of our toolbox and tailor some things for coronavirus.” Edmonds, 28, of Tuolumne, grew up in Amador County and first became inter ested in public health when she attended a health fair in high school. While hospital nurses treat the immediate health conditions of an individual patient, public health nurses focus on promoting wellness and preventing illness among larger communities. “I just love that it focuses on teaching populations how to take care of their health as opposed to when it's already a problem,” she said. Edmonds earned a bachelor's degree in nursing and master's degree in public health and spent time living in San Francisco and New York City before starting her job with the county in 2015. Prior to the pandemic, Edmonds coordinated the county's health care preparedness program that she says has proved to be “incredibly useful” in her current position as supervising public health nurse. Most of the department's focus in the early months of the pandemic was on contact tracing, Edmonds said. “It's hard,” she said. “They're not happy phone calls.” Edmonds said each phone call is different, with some people not even knowing they tested positive or had come into contact with someone who did until she tells them and gives them instructions to quarantine. “I think it's hard for people, because they feel like their rights are being taken away,” she said. “You just try to acknowledge that and have empathy. It's gotten easier in part because people know what to expect now when they get that call.” Edmonds couldn't say how many people she's spoken to over the course of the pandemic between contact tracing and fielding calls for guidance from members of the public and businesses, but she said it felt at times like she was on the phone “all day, everyday.” The contact tracing became increasingly difficult in November, as the county started seeing as many as 70 cases per day. “The number of contacts increased, too,” she said. “We longed for the day when we only had 10 per day.” Edmonds said the department had white boards where they would map clusters of COVID-19 cases, with some being traced back to a single person. There were cases where they contacted people who had gone to multiple different parties and didn't seem like they cared, which Edmonds said would sometimes make them question why they were running themselves ragged. The ultimate goal of trying to keep their community safe was what kept them going whenever they got discouraged, Edmonds said. Most of Edmonds' focus since the start of the year has shifted from contact tracing to the massive effort to vaccinate as many people in the county as possible. “The vaccine has brought a lot of hope,” she said. With the county's daily case rate down since the winter surge, Edmonds said one of her biggest concerns now is about getting enough people vaccinated because of the amount who are still hesitant about taking it. Health experts have targeted a goal of getting 80% to 90% of the population to take the vaccine in order to confidently achieve herd immunity, otherwise there's concern about the virus continuing to spread among those who are not immunized and mutating into variants that could make existing vaccines less effective. Edmonds got married in October during the slowest week of the pandemic and had planned to go on a honeymoon with her husband to Europe, but they have since had to push those plans back to 2022. The potential for a third wave of cases also weighs on Edmonds' mind if people let their guard down too early. “We're tired, but we're dedicated, and we'll obviously keep doing this as long as we can,” she said. “I just think we don't want to get too comfortable with where we're at. We still need to keep distancing and masking and all of those same things that have been important all along.” Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@ or (209) 768-5175.