Across Ohio, public health departments are investigating the spread of COVID-19 with the help of contact tracers. These “disease detectives” are tasked with locating people who may have also contracted the coronavirus, but don't know it yet.
The process begin when a person with COVID-19 is identified.
Sheila Hiddleson, a registered nurse and the health commissioner of Delaware County, says the contact tracers phone the person to ask them questions about who they've encountered within the previous 48 hours, before they were diagnosed, and up until they found out they tested positive.
“Where have they been? If they’ve come in contact with anyone that has had it. What symptoms that they’ve had,” Hiddleson explains. “We ask them questions like, 'What kind of underlying medical problems do you have?'”
Hiddleson is running a staff of 23, and plans to hire 11 new contract tracers, both paid and volunteer.
Their conversations can last up to 45 minutes, and even longer if an interpreter is needed.
“We have put 797 people on either isolation or quarantine, that’s our cumulative number,” Hiddleson says.
Hiddleson says the contact tracers want to know if the person known to the COVID-19 patient showed any symptoms.
“One of the things we talk to them about is how are they feeling,” Hiddleson says. “Do they have any symptoms? And then, of course, if they have symptoms that meet the probable definition, then they become a case where it starts again and we have to talk to them about all of their contacts.”
The average number of contacts is about three, Hiddleson says, although one case involved 46 contacts.
Hiddleson says their first cases included two people who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China, and both tested positive for COVID-19.
“They were so thankful that we were working with them, that they were just so appreciative of the staff and the kindness," she says.
Delaware County reports 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Seven people have died from the disease.
“A lot of times when we talk to people, they don’t really know where they were exposed,” Hiddleson says. “And so that’s always a concern. People always want to know, 'Where did I get this?' And a lot of times we really don’t know, especially with a disease like this that is in the community.”
Hiddleson says the identified contacts must all be monitored.
“Every day that they are on isolation or quarantine, whether they’re in the same house or not, we call and monitor them and talk to them about how they’re feeling, how’s their fever, do they have any symptoms, and also make sure they don’t need anything while they’ve being isolated or quarantined,” Hiddleson says.
Hiddleson adds that she wants to put people at ease if the public health department calls them.
“We’re not going to ask you about your insurance,” Hiddleson says. “We’re not going to ask Social Security. Not going to ask anything about income. What we’re interested in is, 'Are you still sick, how are you feeling and if we put you on quarantine, what do you need to be able to stay in your home?'"