Tue 22 Dec 2020 12:10 p.m.
Guest Editorial by the Erie County Health Department
A year ago, the words “isolation”, “quarantine” and “contact tracing” rarely entered the public consciousness. But now, in a year consumed by COVID-19, those terms have become commonplace. With more than 36,000 confirmed COVID cases in Erie County to date, the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) contact tracing team has interacted with tens of thousands of county residents. of Erie or to place them in isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test. result, or quarantine them because they are a close or family contact.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about contact tracing in Erie County.
√ How many contact tracers does Erie County have?
To date, ECDOH has 137 contact tracers trained and available for planning. This is a mix of Erie County Health and other departments and offices, and contract employees. Nurses from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) are part of our contact tracing work, and staff from the ECDOH Office of Epidemiology are also providing support for some cases. Every day, between 90 and 100 contact tracers work.
√ How many cases can a contact tracer handle each day?
We have found that a contact tracer can handle between five and 10 case investigations in one workday, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of contacts involved.
√ What kind of questions will a contact tracer ask?
Our contact tracers interrogate each COVID-19 case about their activities and locations on the days they were infectious from a standardized data collection form in NYSDOH’s contact tracing data software, Commcare. Any information shared with our contact tracing staff remains confidential; it is important that people provide full and candid answers. The purpose of these questions is to guide that person in their daily activities, to help them remember who they have been in contact with and for how long, so that we can get a full and complete picture of who has been exposed. to COVID-19 and who we have to quarantine ourselves.
This is a standard question for disease surveys, regardless of the disease. The purpose of contact tracing is to isolate and quarantine; and thorough, in-depth interviews are a proven approach to getting the information we need to do just that and break the chain of disease transmission.
Contact tracers will never ask for a social security number, banking information, salary information, credit card numbers, or money.
√ What kind of questions do contact tracers answer?
The simplest answer to this is every type of question imaginable, and every day there are new questions from cases our contact tracers have never encountered before. More importantly, contact tracers address the very real concerns of people who worry about how they will access basic needs like groceries, medications, and medical care; how members of their household can access COVID-19 diagnostic tests; and how to safely isolate and quarantine. Contact tracers also tackle misinformation and myths with facts and factual information from credible sources, like NYSDOH and the CDC.
√ How many cases are you unable to reach?
While it’s not a number we’re currently tracking, there are reasons our contact tracers may not be able to connect with a positive COVID case, some practical and some heartbreaking.
On a practical level, contact tracers make multiple attempts over several days to reach someone with a positive test result by phone. The handshake depends on who answers the call or calls back in response to a message. ECDOH strongly encourages people to answer their phone, even if it’s a number they don’t recognize.
There is another, heartbreaking reason why some others do not answer their calls. In recent months, we have seen an increase in the number of COVID-related deaths. In these cases, other members of that household are also diagnosed with COVID and are coping with their grief over the loss of a loved one while managing their own illness. We are aware of this fact and in these situations respect that our calls may not be answered.
√ How do you define “close contact” of someone with COVID-19?
ECDOH uses the NYSDOH definition of close contact, being within 6 feet for 10 minutes or more. Contact tracers may use other factors, such as duration of exposure, proximity to exposure, and presence of symptoms. This standard applies whether or not a face mask is worn.
√ How will I know if I am a close contact?
During a case investigation, the contact tracer asks who the case had contact with during the time they were infectious. The infectious period is considered to be two days before sample collection for people without symptoms of COVID-19 and two days before the onset of symptoms for people with symptoms. The contact tracer documents those names in Commcare, NYSDOH’s contact tracing data software. These close contacts are notified of their exposure and placed in quarantine, and encouraged to request a COVID-19 diagnostic test approximately five to seven days after their last exposure date to check if they have been infected.
√ Does contact tracing identify “hot spots”?
Our case investigations cannot determine with certainty where a person was infected with COVID-19. This is not the purpose of contact tracing. The purpose of contact tracing is to isolate and quarantine; and thorough, in-depth interviews are a proven approach to getting the information we need to do just that and break the chain of disease transmission.
√ Is there a contact tracing manual?
Our contact tracing team has regularly updated training and reference materials, as well as training on the use of NYSDOH’s contact tracing system, Commcare. Much of our training takes place “on the job” and in person. Even with more than 36,000 confirmed cases in Erie County, there is no “typical” case. Each case of COVID-19 is unique and is managed based on our best practices and best available knowledge.
√ Do contact tracers work at home?
As of this week, a smaller set of contact tracers are working from home as part of a pilot program. Contact tracers are constantly learning on the job and honing their skills under close supervision. We also need to manage data security, workflow, and team communications. When we are satisfied that this plan for contact tracers to work off-site is functional and does not negatively impact our contact tracing operation, we will begin to expand with more staff.
√ How to become a contact tracer?
Applications are accepted from individuals who have completed and passed the John Hopkins Online Contact Tracing Course (free) and who have strong skills in telephone interviewing and the use of technology. Please email [email protected].
For more information:
√ ECDOH, COVID-19, isolation and quarantine: http://www.erie.gov/covid19/iq
√ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quarantine: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/quarantine.html
√ CDC, isolation: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/isolation.html