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Health - Public Health News

Posted on: May 9, 2020

Contact Tracing to Prevent Spread of COVID-19

Knowing where and how people could have been exposed to COVID-19 can help slow the spread of infection in our community. Contact tracing - a part of our disease investigations -  contains further spread of COVID-19 by identifying people who have been exposed to the virus. Extensive disease investigations will allow us to dial back social distancing measures  and help limit the virus from making a comeback. 

Infographic that describes the process of COVID-19 Contact Investigation

What is Contact Tracing?

A disease investigation identifies people who have or might have COVID-19 so that they can isolate or quarantine themselves. Investigations help us identify and check in with “close contacts” - people who were close enough to someone with confirmed COVID-19 infection that it’s likely they could have been infected. That’s what contact tracing is about - finding people who have been in contact with someone who has the disease and having them take actions to limit the spread of the virus to even more people. 

How Does It Work?

When a person has been diagnosed with COVID-19, disease investigators follow a standard process to learn who else could have been exposed to the virus.

First, investigators talk with the person who is sick during a “case investigation”. They ask about their symptoms and where he or she has gone. They also ask if the person is able to get food and other essentials while they are in isolation. Investigators can provide information to help meet these needs.

Investigators also ask about people who have been in “close contact” with the sick person, which means they were within six-feet for more than 10 minutes. 

  • Usually the person who is sick can identify their close contacts, like friends or family members.  
  • However if the individual can’t identify specific contacts, disease investigators might need to talk to event organizers, employers, a healthcare facility, or businesses where the sick person may have spent time.
  • Once close contacts have been identified, investigators talk with those individuals to share information about their exposure and the risks of getting sick. Investigators determine if the contacts have symptoms of COVID-19, make sure they’re doing alright, and help them take precautions to avoid infecting others.

Some people may not be able to safely and effectively quarantine without support. For that reason,  disease investigators provide information to close contacts about alternatives to running errands in-person and other community resources that support basic needs. In April, Whatcom Unified Command opened an isolation and quarantine facility for people with a medical referral who would otherwise be unable to safely quarantine or isolate at home. These people can stay at the facility so that they don’t expose other people to infection.

How Does It Help?

Contact investigations are most successful when there is testing available. Widespread testing along with the ability to do investigations will allow us to begin dialing back protective measures for a return to a more normal daily life.

It is important to know:

  •  We do contact investigations as part of our normal daily work for a number of different infectious diseases. It’s a regular part of public health.

  • We are working closely with the Washington State Department of Health on both testing and staffing for contact investigations. We currently have over 20 health department staff trained to do contact investigations. Soon, we will be recruiting volunteers in case we need more investigators.

  • Our community currently has sufficient testing capacity to meet local needs. People with symptoms of COVID-19 or close contacts of confirmed cases can get tested by their healthcare provider. 

  • As we reopen businesses and return to some parts of normal life, we may need more testing and contact investigations because the number of infections could go back up. We’re keeping a close eye and will be ready to scale up if we need to.

The most effective strategies to slow the spread of COVID are in your hands. Literally. Wash your hands frequently, stay home except for essential trips, wear a mask in public, and keep six feet away from people you don’t live with. These tactics continue to be our most effective strategies to slow the spread of disease, reduce hospitalizations, and prevent the loss of life. 

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