Tracing COVID contacts

Officials: Process is essential to fighting virus

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert Jamie Saxton, a contact tracer with Webster County Public Health, runs through a questionaire she gives over the phone to county residents who test positive for COVID-19. Webster County is one of only 34 counties in Iowa that does its own contact tracing, the remainder having turned over to the state for contact tracing.

For a COVID-19 contact tracer, every phone call is different.

A contact tracer may be using the same worksheet form and may be asking the same questions, but each conversation they have with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who had close contact with a positive case is unique.

“Well, it’s streamlined so we’re asking all the same questions and relaying the same information to them as far as what to do,” said Jamie Saxton, a contact tracer with Webster County Public Health.

But oftentimes, the person on the other end of the phone line has more questions and concerns. Sometimes they’re too tired to talk for very long. And sometimes they’re just scared.

Webster County is one of just 34 counties in Iowa that does its own contact tracing right now. The other 65 counties have turned over contact tracing to the state. At Webster County Public Health, there are about 10 staff members who have taken on the duties of contact tracing for the county.

By doing its own contact tracing, WCPH can emphasize the human aspect of the process.

Contact tracer Shana Fulton said it’s common, especially when calling an elderly person who has tested positive, for the individual to share their concerns or fears about not being able to get groceries or refill prescriptions while in self-isolation for 10 days. They may not have any family or friends in the area who can help. That’s when the contact tracers’ connection to the Webster County community becomes most important — they’re able to help steer individuals toward local programs or organizations that might be able to help with grocery shopping or prescription delivery or other help they may need while they recover.

“That’s why we do the tracing here and that’s why we’re not letting it go because we have such a good relationship with everyone in the community,” Fulton said.

The other main benefit of doing its own contact tracing is that the team at WCPH is able to complete the contact tracing much faster and much earlier than the state can. Each day, health care providers in the county call Webster County Ppublic Health to give them the list of patients who tested positive that day, so contact tracing can begin as soon as possible after that positive result is received. Counties whose contact tracing is being done by the state, however, often are a few days behind due to the delay between health care providers inputting the positive test results into the state reporting system and the state actually receiving and processing that data.

“We don’t want to get behind and we don’t want it to spread in the community,” Fulton said. “We want to make sure we’re on top of this as fast as possible and getting people into isolation as fast as we can.”

When a contact tracer calls an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19, some questions the patient is asked include what their symptoms are, when the symptoms started, what their medical history is, and how many people are in their household.

Then they’re asked about people they had close contact with from two days before the onset of symptoms until the positive test result.

Close contact is defined by public health as contact of less than six feet with no masks for 15 or more consecutive minutes.

It’s important for patients to inform the contact tracers of the names and contact information of people they came in close contact with so that the contact tracers can let those people know they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and give them information on what symptoms to watch out for and where they can get tested.

“We would hate to have somebody out wandering, not knowing they were in close contact and then two days later they become sick and they’ve potentially exposed other people,” Saxton said.

Because of health privacy laws, the contact tracers cannot and do not disclose the identity of the positive individual when making calls to exposed contacts. All they tell those individuals is that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus on a certain date, but do not give any other specifics like location or time, in order to protect the privacy of the patient.

Saxton admitted she knows that the people on the other side of the contact tracing phone call aren’t always completely forthcoming about where they’ve been, who they’ve been in close contact with and if they’ve been wearing a mask while out in public.

“I just tell them, ‘Hey, we’re human,'” she said. “We’re not going to judge — that’s not what we’re here for.”

One of the most frustrating challenges the contact tracers face are the COVID-19 patients who don’t or won’t answer their phone calls.

The calls come from Webster County Public Health and should show up on a caller ID as WCPH.

“If you tested recently, just know that we’re going to be calling, so expect that call,” Fulton said.

Saxton said the contact tracers have had some successes with getting in touch with younger patients by sending a text identifying themselves as with Public Health and asking that the patient calls as soon as possible.

The contact tracers also follow up with the positive COVID-19 patients 10 days after their positive test to check in on them and release them from isolation if they are no longer ill.

With the increase in COVID-19 community spread in Webster County over the past month or so, contact tracers have been working long hours — even on the weekend and on Thanksgiving — to make their phone calls.

“We had a huge week after Halloween,” Fulton explained.

“One day, we had 179 Day 10 calls to make,” Saxton added.

The agency is expecting even more COVID-19 activity in the county in these two weeks following Thanksgiving.

“If you went to a gathering over Thanksgiving, monitor your signs and symptoms and if you do start to feel symptoms, go get tested,” said Kelli Bloomquist, public information officer for WCPH.

The Webster County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline is still open to help answer any questions individuals may have. The hotline number is 515-227-7153.

Regular updates and important information is also shared on the department’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WebsterCountyPublicHealth.


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