Contact Tracing Said to Slow Spread of COVID-19

Sept. 4, 2020, 4:10 p.m. ·

Contact Tracing Team Leader Allison Newman (Photo courtesy Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services)

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An epidemiologist with Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services says tracing the contacts of people with COVID-19 is helping slow the spread of the disease in the state. Here’s more on how the process works.

It all starts when a lab result shows someone has tested positive for COVID-19. That gets reported to public health authorities. In normal times, when the issue might be salmonella or mumps, the local public health district takes it from there. They’re still in the lead with COVID, too. But now, with hundreds of cases a day, Blake Hendrickson, an epidemiologist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said the state is helping out.

Blake Hendrickson (Photo courtesy Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services)

“They’re going to reach out to the person testing positive – try to get ahold of them, speak to them about their health, how they’re doing, and then with COVID, it’s also important to know who they’ve been around, and might have exposed while they’ve been ill,” Hendrickson said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has set a goal of having 1,000 state contact tracers to supplement local public health districts. Hendrickson said it’s important to get the process going right away after someone tests positive.

“We try to call about every four business hours. It’s kind of a balance between over-calling and pestering people but also really wanting to get ahold of them as quickly as possible and let them know it’s urgent,” he said.

Hendrickson said 96 or 97 percent of the people who test positive are called within the first 24 hours, but only about 45 percent are reached. However, within three to four days, that goes up to about 80 percent. When they do reach the person who’s tested positive, the contact tracers follow a process.

“We collect some information about their health and how they’re doing, and then we go back to a timeline going back two days prior to when they became ill. And we kind of walk them through -- we ask them to get a calendar out or use some of their social media or text messages, whatever, to jar their memory. Sometimes it’s been a few days. And we really try to walk them through: Did you go to work that day, did you go to certain social gatherings and also specifically who you’ve been around,” he said.

Hendrickson says some people refuse to name their contacts, but about two-thirds of them do. People who test positive are assured their names and case information will be kept confidential.

“It is quite a spectrum, all the way from people not answering the phone or getting back to you – that’s obviously problematic – but some people are very willing and wanting to assist in this effort,” he said.

Contact tracers have to determine the degree of risk, based on their exposure.

“Household member are really important because they’ve probably had close contact with them, but also if they went to work and were around others, we want to know how close were you and for how long. We really distinguish close contact as within six feet for about fifteen or more minutes in total. And those are the persons we really want to identify and then call as contacts to inform them and give them some guidance on what they should do,” Hendrickson said.

That guidance can vary.

“If they were a high-risk contact, we do recommend a 14-day quarantine from the time that they had that exposure. It’s a little bit different if they’re what we call an essential worker. Teachers fall into that category, doctors, other health care professionals who may not be able to quarantine. But in general we recommend quarantine, so that if they become symptomatic and sick, that they’re stopping that spread of the virus and they’re not out and about and not knowing but spreading it to others as well,” Hendrickson said.

If the person is a contact but not high-risk, they could simply be advised to monitor themself closely for symptoms.

Despite the fact that not everyone cooperates with contact tracers, Hendrickson expressed confidence the program is beneficial.

“It certainly helps. And I think it will help a lot more when we have COVID even more under control. You know, some countries there’s very few COVID cases, and they’re putting a lot of time and attention any time cases pop up, and it can really keep that disease spread under control. Right now we’ve had quite a bit of COVID going around the state for months now. And it’s really hard to compare how much COVID we would have if we weren’t doing this contact tracing. But I think we s really need to use the tools we do have at our disposal,” he said.