COVID-19, Division of Juvenile Justice

Office of Employee Health ‘Disease Detectives’ offer vital COVID-19 contact tracing

As soon as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit our community, the clock began to tick on our ability to quickly identify those who had been exposed. Immediately identifying potential exposures is the foundational block to mitigating the spread of this virus and each day matters.

Through March and April, the CDCR Office of Employee Health (OEH) in partnership with California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) Nursing Services stood up a team of nurse consultants to fulfill the critical role of contact tracing of staff who tested positive for COVID-19.

Contact tracing involves identifying people who have an infectious disease and their contacts (people who may have been exposed), and providing education and resources in efforts to support the employee to help slow the spread

Those tasked with contact tracing have also been coined as “disease detectives,” but their role extends far beyond just identifying cases. Their work is a vital reminder that this is about people, not the disease.

To conduct contact tracing of positive employee cases within CDCR and CCHCS institutions and locations, a team of nurse consultants redirected by CCHCS from areas such as health care audits and compliance, health care appeals, and retired annuitants who have volunteered to return to public service to assist with this critical task, have joined the overall efforts of CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS).

Once an institution, or OEH, is made aware of an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19, the contact tracer’s work begins. First, they immediately reach out to the staff member to offer support and guidance on how the employee can best protect themselves and their families. The nurse consultants provide education on COVID-19 to the employee, a critical service as this new virus brings with it much misinformation and fear.

“It’s important to reassure the employee that this could happen to anyone,” said Ruben Catli, one of the nurse consultants assigned to the contact tracing team. “We want them to know we do care about them and we hope the information will help dispel some of the stigma.”

In addition to providing education about the virus, the nurse consultant asks for information related to places the employee had been in the institution, if they had close contact with any other staff members or incarcerated persons, and all other relevant information needed to make comprehensive quarantine recommendations to institution operations and health care leadership.

CDCR and CCHCS are made up of people, and we are in turn part of the larger community, and what happens outside of prison walls directly impacts what happens inside of them.

In addition to contact tracing, CDCR and CCHCS have implemented multiple strategies since mid-March to control the spread of the virus within our institutions.

They include suspending intake from jails and halting non-essential transfers, exponentially increasing testing for inmates and staff, implementing early release programs for eligible inmates and those deemed medically high-risk for complications, limiting movement within institutions, and mandating all inmates and staff wear masks. More efforts are underway as CDCR and CCHCS work tirelessly to address this public health emergency.

“The small but mighty OEH Nurse Consultant team is the calm and reassuring voice staff hear and they work tirelessly to ensure staff and the institutions are supported during this unprecedented time,” CDCR Deputy Director of Human Resources Katherine Minnich said. “I couldn’t be more proud of their commitment, dedication, and teamwork.”

The OEH contact tracing team thanked Deputy Director Minnich, Staff Services Manager I Caitlin Peretto, and Staff Services Manager III Karen Pulley for their full support and dedication to ensuring this important service is being provided.

Learn more about California’s efforts to combat COVID-19.

Read more stories about CDCR staff’s efforts related to COVID-19.