Here’s what happens when a coronavirus case is confirmed
Local officials say patient support is top priority
EAGLE — For the vast, vast majority of Americans, information about the spread of COVID-19 is a mass media experience involving information disseminated from official sources at the state and national level.
For a very few, it is a very personal process. According to Kris Widlak, Director of Communications for Eagle County, this is the official epidemiological investigation process that coronavirus patients are currently experiencing through official local channels.
When a presumptive positive COVID-19 test result is determined, public health officials contact the health care provider that evaluated and tested the patient. Officials then collect detailed medical information and protocols followed when evaluating the case as well as patient contact information.
Widlak noted a public health worker then contacts the patient regarding the test results and begins gathering information about how the patient may have contracted the virus.
“As you can imagine, this is an emotional discussion and ensuring that the appropriate care and support for this patient is in place is the first priority,” she said. “We also verbally notify the patient of an isolation order.”
Widlak also noted, “We want people to be comfortable in the investigation process, knowing they won’t be stigmatized.”
Those isolation orders are delivered in person, by a health official who is wearing personal protective equipment.
In most cases, the best course of action is to isolate the patient in place until he or she is no longer infectious. That means health officials are also tasked with ensuring the patient’s basic needs such as housing, food and finances are addressed.
Once the patient has been notified, is isolated, and has had his or her basic needs met, a detailed interview process is launched.
“Health officials collect information on family/household members and symptoms,” Widlak said. “They also compile a very detailed, day-by-day itinerary starting 14 days before symptoms started (the exposure period) to the present. This includes where the patient went, who the patient was with and what they did.”
After a thorough patient interview, health officials reach out to household members who are not at the isolation site as well as high-risk contacts.
“For COVID-19 this includes the people the patient lives with, intimate partners and health care workers who provided care,” Widlak said.
She noted that health care workers are typically identified earlier, when the state returns information about the test result. But if a patient saw a doctor prior to coronavirus testing, contacting that office is a priority.
“We then notify high-risk contacts of the exposure to a confirmed case, ask about their health, any current symptoms, and their contact with the case,” Widlak said. “This is also a detailed discussion and involves answering questions about the virus.”
Depending on the nature of contact with the patient, high-risk contacts can be notified of a quarantine order, effective immediately.
Just as they do with patients, health officials also identify challenges high-risk contacts could have meeting basic needs. Widlak said all voluntary quarantine orders are delivered in person.
Beyond the list of high-risk contacts, health officials also identify a list of the patient’s “close contacts.”
“Persons identified as close contacts are considered at medium risk,” Widlak said
She said close contacts are notified of their exposure to a confirmed case and officials collect information on the exposure to determine recommendations for monitoring based on interview results.
As all this work is underway, and after the patient is contacted, the state releases the patient’s location and age. The patient’s information, such as their name, is not disclosed due to patient privacy laws.
Subject to change
While the above process is in effect today, the day will likely come when it is no longer sustainable.
“If and when community transmission has been confirmed, which means the virus is spreading from person-to-person within the community without outside exposure, the process will change,” Widlak said. “The number of cases will outpace our ability to conduct these in-depth interviews, and that information will be less important than providing resources and guidance toward slowing the spread of the virus.”
To ensure local resources are able to focus their time and attention on current and future case investigations, all additional cases in Eagle County will be reported through the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment website. Local officials will continue to share important community safety information at http://www.ECEmergency.org.
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