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Contact tracers on front line of tracking coronavirus

It’s the worst-case scenario — you’ve contracted the coronavirus.

You just got the call and there’s a million thoughts racing through your head. Will you be OK? Where did you catch it? Who might you have exposed to the virus?

A few days later, a call from an unfamiliar number pops up on your phone. It’s a contact tracer ready to track the virus.

Although they’re not in the trenches like doctors and nurses, contact tracers are an essential part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Contact tracers work with local health districts and people who have tested positive for the virus to determine who else might have been exposed.

Sounds simple, right? Well, try thinking of everyone you’ve been within six feet of for more than 15 minutes in the past week. Now get their contact information together.

Contact tracing has been around for a long time, but didn’t receive much attention until the coronavirus pandemic. For example, health districts trace contacts for cases of tuberculosis and food-borne illnesses.

“That’s not something that’s new to health departments,” said Kate Baker, lead investigator with the Thomas Jefferson Health District, which includes Charlottesville and Albemarle County. “Contact tracing is something we have taken and adapted.”

Rosemarie O’Connor, who lives in Charlottesville, visited friends in Virginia Beach in late June and then heard one of them may have been exposed to the virus. As a precaution, she decided to get tested and was positive.

“It was really surprising considering I didn’t have any symptoms,” she said.

O’Connor’s interaction with a contact tracer wasn’t very difficult because she was already quarantining herself and didn’t have any symptoms. She had taken the initiative to contact her friends, and her boyfriend got tested, as well.

A contact tracer’s first job is to establish when a patient may have been infectious and who they could have come into contact with, Baker said.

Tracers then try to get information for close contacts and call them. If someone who was exposed has a test pending, the health district stays in contact with them to find out if they were negative.

“People’s initial reaction is to jump and get testing right away,” Baker said.

Baker pointed out that a negative test doesn’t mean someone is in the clear because the virus has an incubation period of two to 14 days after exposure. She said the ideal time to be tested is five to seven days after exposure.

A continual frustration for tracers is getting people to answer the phone. Because of the health district’s hiring process, not all of the tracers’ calls are coming from a 434 area code.

“We’re all familiar with telemarketing and spam calls, and certainly that can be difficult getting people to answer the phone,” Baker said.

Baker said health officials are working with telephone companies to get their caller ID to come up as Virginia Department of Health Contact Tracers so people are more likely to pick up.

One tool officials are hoping will help in tracking the virus is Virginia’s new COVIDWISE app.

The app allows phones to exchange Bluetooth signals with other phones that have the app to keep an anonymous list of close encounters. The app then allows those who catch the virus to notify people who may have been contacted without revealing their identity.

If people receive a positive test, the district will still conduct its own contact tracing, but the app will still help residents determine if they’ve been exposed.

The app is available for smartphones and for it to be most effective, more people need to download it, state officials say.

“This is just another way to try to harness technology to support contact tracing efforts,” Baker said.

People who are notified that they were exposed also will receive instructions on how to contact their local health district and what safety measures they should take.

If you’ve been exposed to the virus, get tested and receive negative results, Baker cautioned that you’re not in the clear. The test only targets the specific moment it is administered.

“Even if that test is negative, the way the virus works, it’s important that people still finish 14 days of quarantine,” she said. “A negative test doesn’t mean you get to end your quarantine early.”


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