North Carolina health departments have struggled to hire COVID-19 school liaisons

By Ivey Schofield

When Amanda Deaver became the leader of the Scotland County Health Department in June, an important position needed to be filled: a liaison dedicated to helping local schools during the coronavirus pandemic, from quarantines to testing and vaccinations. 

The position had been open for a year, and Deaver said she worried its grant funding – $115,000 from the state – would disappear. 

Deaver said she received an email from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services explaining that the money would go to another county if she couldn’t find someone to take the job by the end of December. Finally, she found two qualified candidates to hire, splitting the grant between them.

“We really saw the need,” Deaver said, “and we would’ve hated to lose the funding if we couldn’t find staff.”

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North Carolina allocated $9.66 million in July 2021 from the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity-Reopening Schools funds to create COVID-19 school liaisons for many health departments across the state. But many departments have been struggling to fill the positions. 

Currently, 44 health departments across the state have still not hired someone for the job, said Summer Tonizzo, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the Border Belt region of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties in southeastern North Carolina, only Scotland and Columbus counties have COVID-19 school liaisons, Tonizzo said. Robeson has not filled the position, and Bladen did not receive funding for one. 

Hiring for the positions has been tough, Tonizzo said, because of the nationwide health care worker shortage and the fact that the jobs are temporary. 

By 2033, North Carolina could have a shortage of more than 12,000 nurses, according to UNC-Chapel Hill

In July, the state removed its requirement that nurses fill the school liaison positions and opened the jobs to social workers and health educators. 

Border Belt counties have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, highlighting the need for employees dedicated to COVID-19 education. 

About half of Scotland County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared to 67% percent statewide, according to recent data from NCDHHS. Just 11% have gotten a booster shot, while the statewide figure is 21%.

In recent months, Deaver said, schools have been struggling with a triple wave of COVID-19, the flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a respiratory illness  that can be fatal for young children. 

So Deaver said she was glad to have two new employees for local schools: Tariq Hargrove, health educator, and Erica Quick, community health worker.

Since January, Hargrove and Quick have been setting up health booths at middle school basketball games to talk about COVID-19 and meningitis vaccines. They also created a lesson plan about random acts of kindness and worked with school nurses for accommodations for students who tested positive for COVID and general health initiatives like ensuring that children are washing their hands. A health fair is planned for April. 

“We’re trying to fill in the gaps for people who aren’t knowledgeable about COVID vaccines or any kind of immunization,” Quick said. 

Erica Quick (left), health department intern Jennifer Steen (center) and Tariq Hargrove (right) set up a health resource table at Laurel Hill Elementary School to teach children about COVID tests and tobacco earlier this month. Contributed photo.

Deaver said she wants the liasons to also educate local students about work on teen pregnancy and tobacco usage. 

Scotland County has among the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state, with 44 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 giving birth, compared to the state’s rate of 21 per 1,000 women in the same age group. 

“They’ve hit the ground running,” Deaver said of the health liaisons. “But there are other public health issues they can address once they get through COVID.”

Although the jobs are temporary, Quick and Hargrove said they are gaining experience they will need for future jobs.

“I didn’t have too much experience in the health field,” said Hargrove, who graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in December 2020. “This really is a door opener for me.”

The money for school liaisons is set to end in June, Tonizzo said. Deaver said she is waiting to hear if the state will renew the grant to give her employees more time to focus on crucial health initiatives. 

“But if the funding does end,” Deaver said, “we’re hoping we’ve at least made an impact.” 

Erica Quick and Tariq Hargrove have worked at the Scotland County Health Department as community health workers for local schools since December.
Contributed photo