Contact tracing: when health officials say efforts start to really pick up


You may not have heard about contact tracing until COVID-19 entered our community. But it’s a tool used by health officials even before this outbreak. Joe Elm and Lauren Usagawa work at the state Health Department’s Disease Investigation Branch. They have many responsibilities like going out in the field and giving vaccines. They also do contact tracing.

There are about 70 reportable diseases that are investigated by the branch. In the case of COVID-19, more contact tracing is involved with most of the interviews done over the phone.

“When we were getting 20 cases a day, and there were 6 to 8 contacts per person they average each and those contacts maybe 4 to 6, you can see how it multiples pretty fast,” said Joe Elm, Field Investigations Supervisor.

“We just dive right in. We look at phone numbers if we could get a medical record attached just to get a little background on the person,” said Lauren Usagawa, Epidemiological Specialist, “and then I just call the patient and do my initial interview, getting all the information I need.”

Usagawa says one interview could take about 30 minutes to an hour.

“It’s not just asking like one question how are you today? But it’s also like really how are you feeling? Are you really having symptoms or is this something that is normal for you? Are you having allergies? And being able to have them like be able to tell you that I’m not just having allergies I am starting to have a cough,” she said.

When a person needs to be quarantined, officials follow-up and call every day for 2 weeks.

“Those two weeks of you know more than 20 cases a day, that was a lot of work. A lot of overtime. A lot of nights and weekends,” said Usagawa.

If you look at the curve, Elm says people may have an unrealistic idea at the beginning that measures like contact tracing are going to stop the disease.

“You can throw 10-thousand people in here and you couldn’t track everybody as well as you liked to,” said Elm. “So our contact tracing is really important at that downward slope, on the other side, that’s where we really have to dig in and make sure we find everybody.”

“Sometimes they won’t answer the phone or there are issues like that. The investigators had to go out and actually knock on the door and see these people face-to-face, at a safe distance of course. Sometimes that establishes the rapport that they need to conduct an investigation,” said Elm.

“I know people don’t think we are doing it. I guess they don’t see it happening but we are helping,” said Usagawa.

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