Dynamic duo tackles contact tracing



Serving an essential role in Liberty Hill ISD’s reopening, LHISD Health Service’s Michaella Ellis and Melissa Harrington are the dynamic duo responsible for COVID-19 contact tracing.

Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who have come into contact with someone infected and determining any other that the infected individuals may have contacted.

Contact tracers quickly locate and reach out to individuals and assist them in self-isolating and seek medical attention to slow the spread of infection to others. Tracers work with individuals to build out and determine others that might have come into contact.

“Melissa and I make up the Health Services for the ISD, and I also help with the nurses. I am the lead district nurse, and Melissa is the head athletic trainer,” said Ellis. “Anytime that someone calls in for COVID or they’re sick, the nurses then direct the information to health services, and from there we go in, process and investigate. Whether it’s looking through film, going through the campuses, walking through classrooms, looking at seating charts, outside, inside, or during athletics, we do it all.”

Ellis relates the level of contact a person has with the difference in closeness between first and second cousins.

“We figure out which parents, staff members, or students were exposed for a long period and are the most likely to have been exposed to COVID,” she said. “What we tell people is that its kind of like first and second cousins.

If you’re the first cousin, then you’re the first one in line. That’s what close contact is. A second cousin is the next contact. Those are typically a little safer than the first.”

Performing a thorough investigation and going through things with a fine-tooth comb takes time.

“We go through all of that, and sometimes on average, it can take us anywhere between 8 hours and 10 hours to complete the process,” said Harrington. “To be able to tell where it exactly originated from is the same as the flu, no one will ever know. We can only take the case that comes in, and we comb through every single piece of evidence that might be in front of us. It depends on how big the case can get.”

The duo’s job isn’t over after completing their investigation. The next step requires reporting to multiple agencies.

“The job doesn’t stop after we’ve contacted everyone. We still need to report to the TEA. We need to report to the Williamson County Health Department,” said Harrington. “Every week, we have to put in COVID illnesses versus flu illnesses. There is a lot of documentation that goes into this.”

The difference between COVID and the Flu is razor-thin to the average person. For trained individuals like Harrington and Ellis, there are specific telltale symptoms to seek.

“We have certain symptoms that we seek out. If somebody hasn’t tested positive for COVID or the Flu, and symptoms correspond with COVID, doctors will say it is clinical probable,” Harrington said. “That means they believe it’s COVID. There are a few symptoms that are different from COVID that are the Flu, so Williamson County gives us a chart. We have to rely on the practitioners to tell us which one it is. Our campus nurses do such a great job on the front line.”

Ellis stresses the importance for families to take COVID seriously because it can affect anyone and everyone. Ellis takes pride in knowing the work they’re doing, while uncomfortable for some, is helping all.

“It doesn’t discriminate. I don’t care if you’re two or 100, it does not discriminate,” said Ellis. “It doesn’t discriminate if you have pre-existing conditions or if you’re healthy. It can affect anybody at any time. One of the bigger things Michaella and I have learned while doing this is, we do not know what battles out families are fighting at home. If we’re taking that one extra step and upsetting that one family to make sure everyone is healthy at home. We’re proud to keep everyone safe.”

Harrington understands some people’s frustrations but appreciates the many grateful responses they’ve gotten from parents.

“We’ll take that 95 percent of grateful parents to that 5 percent who get angry because we have to quarantine their child,” said Harrington. “The 95 percent are so grateful because they know we’re looking out for everybody and not just an individual. It’s all taking care of each other.”

A critical thing people need to know that overcoming COVID’s initial symptoms doesn’t mean the battle is over. It is well-documented there can be long-term complications after initial recovery.

“People have long-term issues and it can either be heart or lung, not one person knows how it’s going to affect them,” said Harrington. “The sad thing is that until it affects their family, some people won’t believe it’s something we need to protect ourselves from.”

Ellis and Harrington believe the Liberty Hill community and parents of athletes need to be aware of the heightened risks of long-term issues for athletes.

“I know that on the athletic side of it, we’re very cautious when a kid comes back from COVID. There have been several athletes that haven’t been allowed to play. Whether it’s NCAA, professional, or high school because there are heart issues months after this,” said Ellis. “When an athlete comes back, we make sure to look at them a little closer, so they don’t have any issues with their heart. We’re talking about long-term brain issues, contusion issues. There’s plenty out there, and we’re just learning about long-term effects.”

Harrington is grateful for the support of the district’s administration. For Harrington, the support makes constant new challenges that arise more manageable.

“We’re super blessed to have the leadership we have with our superintendent and assistant superintendent. They’re amazing to work with, and they support us 100 percent,” said Harrington. “The hardest is that every day something new comes up and when you implement new things people don’t like change, but it’s going to happen.”

Together, Ellis and Harrington are navigating a thick fog of the unknown, but the determined duo is learning to make their way through and come out on the other end.

“This has been two people learning to lean on each other that are pretty strong women on their own and realizing we’ve had to figure it out together,” said Ellis. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve learned, and it’s for the greater good. If I’m down, she picks me up, and if she’s down, I pick her up.”