September 29, 2021

Stronger together: North Eastern Public Health Unit (NEPHU)

At the beginning of the year, Northern Health became part of the North Eastern Public Health Unit (NEPHU), a team of healthcare workers focusing on the North Eastern region to help manage the COVID-19 outbreak response. Austin Health has been appointed as the lead health service, in collaboration with Northern Health and Eastern Health.

Dr Christian McGrath, Clinical Lead NEPHU @ Northern, explained the idea for a localised health unit came about last year due to an increase in COVID-19 cases and the need for more contact tracers to support the Department of Health.

“At some stage, it got quite busy and demand was high – then the decision was made to form these local public health units, and decentralise public health into local regions. It’s much easier to manage 15 or 20 post codes as a public health unit, than thousands across the state. At the moment, all we can focus on is COVID-19, but the idea is that one day, those local public health units will start developing into units responsible for other health issues and communicable diseases in the region, like measles, environmental health issues, as well as play a role in health promotion,” Dr McGrath said.

For Dr McGrath, working locally has numerous benefits for getting things done quickly and efficiently, and improving local health outcomes.

“Having these health units attached to health services, like we are here, means there are a lot of relationships that can develop and the units can really improve local health outcomes. Our North Eastern Public Health Unit roughly covers a catchment area of 1.8 million people. Our teams operationally work integrated with the Austin and Eastern Health teams, and there is probably 300 staff across NEPHU working on this program at the moment,” he added.

Samantha Soggee, Operations Lead NEPHU, explains how the unit works to contact trace and reduce transmissions in the north-east catchments.

“At the moment, we are in the super surge and the volume of cases is high. Northern, Austin and Eastern Health work together by joining into one team and we function out of pods – like ‘confirmed case pod’, ‘primary close contact pod’, ‘exposure site pod’, and each of those pods will have a team leader and an overarching operations lead across all of the pods,” she said.

“Once there is a confirmed case in the catchment, the team would pick that up on the dashboard and interview the case, generate all the exposure sites, all primary close contacts, and then the designated pods will follow up. For example, the ‘exposure sites pod’ will follow up with the businesses, close them down if needed, advise on cleaning etc,” she added.

For both Samantha and Christian, this new role meant a lot of learning on the job and adapting processes and procedures to make the response more efficient.

“Our COVID response unit started in April this year, and that is when things started to ramp up. It was really the baptism of fire, as the City of Whittlesea outbreak started at that time, and it has been go-go-go since,” Dr McGrath said.

“It’s no secret that a lot of COVID-19 cases are in the northern suburbs. For example, the NEPHU team conducted 300 case interviews one day last week, and that is an amazing effort, considering the total case number for Victoria that day was around 500. If we are concerned about a case, we join the efforts from ED, pathology and our contact tracers to get the results quickly, and that is the main benefit of working locally,” he added.

The team works seven days a week, and also works closely with metro and our regional public health unit partners and the Department of Health, to manage outbreaks.

“Over the months, it has been streamlined what information is being collected, in terms of information from cases. Previously, we would contact trace everywhere a case would go, but now we are contact tracing sensitive settings and exposure sites around that, usually workplaces and homes. We are trying to suppress COVID-19, while the vaccination rates are going up,” Samantha added.

The team is welcoming new members – if you have some free time, enjoy working from home and are interested in contact tracing, please contact Lara Madden on: