Contact tracers play crucial role in stopping COVID-19 spread at the county level

Tracking coronavirus cases proves difficult amid new surge
Posted at 4:35 AM, Jul 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-17 07:24:27-04

(WXYZ) — In the fight against COVID-19, county health departments are playing a crucial – and sometimes overlooked role – in stopping the spread.

In the past couple of weeks, county health investigators have been identified exposure sites all over metro Detroit; from a bar in Royal Oak to a strip club in Romulus and a large house party in Saline.

The people working on the ground each day to identify positive cases and more importantly – connect the dots to other people, are called contact tracers.

Contact tracing is not a new practice, it's done anytime there's an outbreak of an infectious disease. In Washtenaw County, the process is two-fold.

It all starts with case investigation, normally done by a nurse, speaking with the first identified positive patient. Positive lab results are sent directly to the county for this purpose.

“Figuring out where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, making sure they’re cared for, they have what they need to isolate and quarantine," explained Public Information Officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department, Susan Ringler Cerniglia.

On any given day, contact tracers are making a lot of phone calls, sending emails, texts, and even letters in the mail.

“We focus on what we call close contact — that 15 minute face-to-face because we know there’s a likelihood of infection," Ringler Cerniglia said.

Tracers like Tedi Milgrom takes over after the case investigation, and begin the process of connecting the dots and creating a web of possible exposures by talking to anyone who may have been in close contact with the first patient; even if they're not showing symptoms.

“Majority of people do eventually answer the phone or call us back. By day 3 most of the people we’ve reached," Milgrom told Action News. And if they don't make contact, tracers keep trying.

“Some people are less willing to share information regarding who know who they’ve been in contact with," she said, making data collection that much more challenging.

Milgrom said they're seeing more examples of young people spreading the virus in Washtenaw County. She said now that more testing is available, people are going directly to be tested after learning they may have been exposed. However sometimes it takes the virus a couple of days to reach the threshold for detection, meaning that patients could test negative initially and still have the virus. That's another reason Milgrom said quarantining is so important.

Just last week, 43 cases were linked to that house party in Saline after the Fourth of July. That number is now up to 48, and almost 70 people are being traced or monitored.

“It’s a really good example of how quickly that can spread," said Ringler Cerniglia.

Washtenaw County currently has around 20 contact tracers on staff, with a few graduate interns from U of M's School of Public Health. They're looking to add more too, as Michigan sees more case spikes.

County health departments add their tracing data to the state's database. Milgrom pointed out that tracers don't need personal information from patients -- but instead are really just focused on who they may have come into contact with and when. The identities of the patients are always protected, she said.

Click hereto learn more about contact tracing.

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

Click here for a page with resources including a COVID-19 overview from the CDC, details on cases in Michigan, a timeline of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's orders since the outbreak, coronavirus' impact on Southeast Michigan, and links to more information from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and the WHO.

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.

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