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Controlling the spread of COVID-19: What you need to know about contact tracing

Contact tracing_How to find people who tested positive and identify who they came in contact with

Health departments nationwide are quickly implementing contact tracing programs to stem the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), including those in Wisconsin. Here’s what you need to know.

Health departments nationwide are quickly implementing contact tracing programs to stem the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), including those in Wisconsin.

These programs are meant to help public health officials learn who has been in contact with people testing positive for COVID-19, then talk with them about their possible exposure.

According to Kate Maguire, director of Infection Prevention and Control, Marshfield Clinic Health System, contact tracing has been used by public health departments for years to track illness in patients who’ve had tuberculosis, measles and other respiratory illnesses.

“Now it’s being used with a level of intensity we’ve not seen before and staff are rapidly being hired in a number of states to do this work,” Maguire said.

Initially, positive and suspect COVID-19 cases must be reported to public health officials who want to learn who’s had contact with them when they were infectious.

“You seek to understand who they were in close contact with before they had symptoms,” Maguire said, “when they were able to spread the virus within two days before symptoms appear.”

A contact tracer may then reach out, asking for voluntary participation. Through an interview the tracer learns who was in close contact and reaches out to those who were exposed to provide and get more details, see how they’re feeling, ask if they’ve been tested and encourage them to self-quarantine depending on how close the contact was, Maguire said.

Contact tracing should break the chain of transmitting this contagious disease, Maguire said, and public health departments then know where disease is in a community. That knowledge and gathered data helps decision-makers determine next-steps, and is critical to the Badger Bounce Back strategy.

Innovative technology, not only phones but texting and mobile apps, impacts the success of contact distancing and COVID in general.

“There is so much more technology out there that would speak to this and the use of data,” she said. “This is being done in South Korea very effectively, for example. Those types of technologies are coming along. They’re not so sophisticated yet so it’s old-fashioned talking to people for now.”

Also, contact tracing is only as good as the person reporting the information.

“Saturday’s my ‘outing day’ to leave the house and I may go somewhere for groceries,” she said. “I could forget where I went. ‘Did I make a stop or didn’t I?’ There also will be people who won’t or who are unable to participate in contact tracing.

“It will be about a desire to help and be a part of the effort.”

For more about contact tracing, click on this link to take you to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

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