Summit County hires 6 contact tracers to combat spread of coronavirus
BRECKENRIDGE — When a person tests positive for the novel coronavirus, it sets off a chain of events at the county level.
First, the patient is approached by the county’s case investigators and asked a series of questions about where they’ve been, who they’ve hung out with and how they live. Then, case investigators go to the person’s known close contacts, people who have been within 6 feet of the patient for 10 minutes or more. Once those contacts are identified, they are put in quarantine.
The whole process is called contact tracing, and the goal is to contain the spread of the virus by knowing as much as possible about its spread in the community.
The county has hired six new contact tracers, or case investigators as the county refers to them, to help with that process, said Lauren Gilbert, branch chief of the county’s contact-tracing team. The county plans to double that number in the future, she said.
Overall, the county is dedicating $1 million from the general fund to hire the case investigators; however, officials hope it will be offset through stimulus or reimbursement funds from the federal or state government, county Communications Director Julie Sutor said. The money also will be used to hire an additional data analyst and a public information officer for the contact-tracing branch.
“It’s something that just demonstrates what an unusual set of circumstances that we find ourselves in,” Sutor said. “We really have had to rearrange and change our organization in really significant ways.”
The money allows for the new hires to do their jobs for nine months to a year or until a vaccine or treatment for the virus becomes available, Sutor said.
Contact tracing isn’t new. Gilbert said the county has been using the process to identify close contacts of those who test positive for any communicable disease like mumps or tuberculosis. However, with the onset of the pandemic, the job of contact tracing has become much more important.
A total of 184 people have tested positive for the virus in Summit County, according to the county’s coronavirus webpage. Every single one of them has been approached by a case investigator.
“The goal of it really is to stop the spread of the virus and break the lines of transmission,” Gilbert said. “We do that by identifying people that could have potentially been exposed. So if we put them into quarantine, and they develop symptoms, then there’s a lower likelihood that they’re out spreading it among others.”
The main job of case investigators is to call the person who tested positive and ask them about their lives. They start by asking a person about their medical background and then transition into the contact-tracing process, which involves a series of questions about a person’s life. For example, they’ll ask whether the patient shares a bathroom or how many people are in a person’s household. The entire process takes about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the complexity of a person’s life, Gilbert said.
“Some people have been quarantining or isolating already, so they may not have a lot of close contacts,” she said. “But we’ve seen people with upwards of 10 to 20 close contacts.”
Gilbert said the most important part of the process is to build trust with the patients and maintain a good relationship.
“We really need a partnership of people that are positive to give us the information,” she said. “That’s really important. We’re only as good as the information that people are willing to share with us.”
The people hired as case investigators come from all backgrounds, Gilbert said. When hiring, she said she looks at the person’s ability to be creative, think on their feet and know what questions to ask on the spot. The county also is prioritizing hiring people who are bilingual, so the Spanish-speaking community has equal access to the case investigators.
“Being able to be bilingual, you build that rapport, trusting relationship more quickly and with more ease,” Gilbert said.
Overall, Gilbert said the contact-tracing process has been smooth and people have been cooperating. The hardest part, she said, is informing people that they need to quarantine when that could affect their ability to continue working.
“It’s really challenging for people at this time to help us with that disease prevention because it comes at a risk to their ability to get paid and provide to their family,” she said. “We really empathize with those folks, but for the most part, people have been really forthcoming.”
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