Kent District Library partners with Kent County Health Department to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing efforts

By David Specht, Digital Marketing Strategist

People unfamiliar with KDL are often surprised to learn about what all the library has to offer: from bicycles to ukuleles to vinyl records. People might also be surprised to learn about how we’ve pivoted to support services that are not traditionally related to the library. One such instance came this winter, when Kent County Health Department’s backlog of COVID-19 contact tracing began to rapidly build, and Kent District Library was able to lend a hand.

If you look at Kent District Library’s most recent Strategic Plan, you’ll see that increasing the value delivered to the community by focusing on demonstrated needs is outlined as one of our business goals under the Engagement & Service category. And throughout 2020 and for the first quarter of 2021, there have been plenty of “demonstrated needs” from the communities we serve. From internet access to food access to access to physical library materials, our staff has worked to reimagine ways to safely bring our suite of services to patrons. And while we’ve tried our best to accommodate patrons, the reality of the situation that we are all experiencing is that our staff must be accommodated as well.

Per CDC guidelines, Kent District Library requires all staff who come into contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for two weeks. For some staff such as those in the Finance Department or Marketing Communications Department, this might not be too big an inconvenience, as they do most of their work on a laptop and might already be working from home full time. For others, such as our frontline staff whose duties require them to be in the branches, trying to work from home can prove much more difficult. So when an opportunity came along to offer support to the Kent County Health Department’s COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, KDL’s Director of Human Resource & Organizational Development Brian Mortimore jumped right on it.

"We recognized a need and we wanted to help,” Mortimore said. “At a time when so many people feel helpless and full of despair, we wanted to do whatever we could to make a difference for our community by being a good partner to another agency. We have talented people with a knack for tracking details and sharing information, so it just made sense."

One issue that arises when requiring staff to quarantine for two weeks is that they may run out of sick time and must tap into vacation time, FMLA or, eventually, forfeit the hours on their paycheck. By allowing these staff members to dedicate time to contact tracing – a task that can easily be tackled from home – they can avoid running into any issues with their hours while still doing work that ultimately benefits the taxpayers in Kent County. And while this arrangement certainly helped KDL remedy a tough situation, it also helped ease some of the stress that was put on staff at the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) and strengthened the bond between the two entities.

“The KDL team was fantastic to work with in support of our contact tracing efforts,” said John West, Kent County Health Department's public health program supervisor. “The team leads were great communicators. They were diligent while remaining flexible as our needs changed. The volunteers as a whole provided a needed lift to our Health Department Team as we were being stretched pretty thin. In short, I was very grateful for the help the KDL team provided. They made our work easier and it was gratifying to feel supported by a community partner.”

Throughout the winter, numerous KDL staff members took on contact tracing duties while working from home. One such person was Emily Dao, an assistant branch librarian from our Wyoming Branch, who spent multiple days entering data into the KCHD’s database to track community spread of COVID-19 and any individuals that may have been exposed after a confirmed positive test. Respondents would retrace their whereabouts several days prior to the positive test and list the contact information of individuals they spent time indoors with without safely distancing.

“It was rewarding work knowing that my time allowed the Health Department workers to contact individuals to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when the rate of infection was high during the holidays,” Dao said. “After performing this work, I learned to appreciate only visiting with family members within my social bubble, and video chatting with my friends and more distant family as it was easy to spread the virus when relaxing with loved ones, and it was important to me to keep them safe.”

Katie Webb, a substitute librarian, took on the role of liaison between KDL and KCHD. Each evening she would contact KCHD letting them know of KDL staff available to pick up cases the following day. The next morning, Webb emailed the KDL staff reminding them of their training documents and any changes to input protocols.

“It was nice to feel like I was lending a hand (albeit the tiniest little hand) to the county's prevention efforts,” Webb said. “As a mostly stay-at-home mom/ photographer/ substitute librarian, it's been hard to feel like I've been able to do anything to help other than just stay home.”

Webb, much like many others, had never thought about how an illness is tracked and how important that work is in keeping the community healthy.

“I can't imagine how much stress and pressure the Health Department must be under, but every person I worked with there was truly wonderful.”

As the number of positive COVID-19 tests across the country and in Kent County continues to drop, the contact tracing efforts conducted by KDL staff have, for the time being, been put on hold. But if down the road the opportunity presents itself, we will be at the ready to lend a hand to our friends at KCHD and help to address our community’s demonstrated needs.