Tracking Coronavirus: Health experts share the importance of contact tracing

Coronavirus

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Contact tracing is a key part in helping public health officials better understand COVID-19, along with limiting its spread. While the process has been a highlight this global pandemic, it is not new.

So, what is contact tracing? Freddy Gray, a director of health preparedness and response and health communication programs with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, describes the process related to COVID-19 as “the ability to try to find out people that have been exposed to another person that is infected.”

What is the process of contact tracing?

“Contact tracing is a public health intervention and measure that we’ve been using for many, many years,” Gray noted.

The process breaks down like this: If someone is infected, the health department will be notified whether it is COVID-19 related or something else. If it is the COVID-19 virus, the health department will contact and “basically interview that person” looking at who they potentially exposed; including people they have been in close contact with or someone they have been around within 6 feet of distance to start monitoring “those kinds of exposure rates.”

The process is “key,” as it sheds light to who has potentially been exposed, to tell other people who have possibly been exposed as well — almost like a chain reaction. Gray says, “it’s vital, contact tracing is huge in this.”

Challenges with contact tracing and COVID-19

While it is a process that has been around for years, public health officials have faced some obstacles regarding contact tracing and COVID-19.

Testing is key and there can be some obstacles when it comes to the testing process, Gray notes, “sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get the results back.”

That’s why self-quarantining is important, health officials say. If someone has been exposed and potentially infected, but may not have test results confirming if they are infected with the virus or not, they can self-isolate for the 14-day period so they are not possibly infecting others.

Another challenge posed with contact tracing and the novel virus is the nature of the disease itself: It’s contagious and people can be asymptomatic.

“So I think that’s what makes some of this so challenging is because I can’t differentiate between a person who is infected and not infected because sometimes the signs and the symptoms aren’t visible,” Gray said.

Gray has worked with the ORAU for about 27 years and ORAU has worked with the CDC since the early 2000s in communities trying to identify and mitigate the surge of patients in the health care system. Communities develop plans and test them but with COVID-19 it’s an actual emergency, so the public health department has been applying their plans and working them, Gray says, “it’s just a large feat” for them to tackle.

Regardless of the challenges, contact tracing is a vital part in limiting the spread as it helps identify those who are potentially infected and have been exposed, make sure they are okay and keep them contained during the self-isolation period to help stop the spread.

“You keep them contained and you can monitor them and you’re less likely to expose the whole public therefore the second wave,” Gray says, “until there’s a vaccine or some kind of medical countermeasure we’re left to being responsible to our own people.”

Preventative measures

As previously reported, it is important to practice social distancing and take extra sanitary measures. Gray reiterates that until there is a vaccine people must use pharmaceutical intervention.

  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Using cloth face coverings in public
  • Cough or sneeze into sleeve
  • Stay 6 feet away from people

Ultimately holding ourselves accountable and responsible to help limit the spread.

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