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Sharp Health News

The importance of contact tracing

June 30, 2020

The importance of contact tracing
As the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly spread across the globe, the unknowns about the disease — how it is transmitted, who is at greatest risk and how it is best treated — dominated the international conversation. Borders were closed and flights were canceled.

As more was learned, nations turned inward to manage the health crisis and concentrated on far more localized efforts to contain the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Contact tracing, a measure used by county and state health departments, became vital to tracking and stopping the virus’s transmission within communities.

“Contact tracing is performed for several communicable diseases, from sexually transmitted infections to tuberculosis, and now COVID-19,” says Christina Khaokham, RN, an infection preventionist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers. “Contact tracing helps to limit disease spread by informing persons that they have been exposed to a communicable disease. Trained contact tracers direct the exposed person to care and treatment, and to limit their actions to help contain potential transmission.”

How does contact tracing work?
Contact tracing begins when a person receives a COVID-19 positive test result. Public health staff members reach out to the individual and work with them to recall the locations they have frequented and the people with whom they have come into contact during the time they were most likely to be infectious. They also provide access to testing and medical care, if needed, and stay in touch to monitor their health.

People who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes in the 48 hours before symptoms arose and until the infected person self-isolates are at greatest risk. These individuals — known as contacts — are called and informed that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and asked about their own activities and who they have spent time with. Names and all personal information remain confidential.

Contacts will also be given the following information:
  • Education about the disease.
  • The importance of maintaining social distance from others for 14 days to avoid further transmission, even if the contact is not showing symptoms.
  • How to monitor themselves for symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.
  • Who to contact if they develop symptoms, and where to be tested and receive any necessary medical care.
The public health employees who perform contact tracing are highly trained. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that contact tracers must maintain strict patient confidentiality, understand COVID-19 and its means of transmission, have access to resources for testing and treatment, and be sensitive to cultural and other interpersonal needs.

Some key points to remember about talking with a contact tracer:
  • Anything you tell a contact tracer will remain confidential.
  • Your identity — as well as the identity of the person who may have exposed you to the virus — will never be shared.
  • You will not be asked about your immigration status.
  • You will not be asked for your Social Security number or payment information.
  • In California, you will receive access to free, confidential COVID-19 testing, regardless of your income, health insurance or immigration status.
According to Khaokham, contact tracing is not limited to community and public health actions. Sharp uses similar measures to protect the health and wellness of both patients and employees.

“Infection preventionists and Sharp’s employee occupational health department perform internal contact tracing and management within Sharp entities when we have communicable disease exposures that may affect our patients or health care workers,” she says.

If you receive a call from a public health contact tracer, it is important that you cooperate by talking to them honestly about where you have been and who you have been with. Contact tracing plays a vital role in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, and can protect the health of your friends, loved ones and other members of your community.

Learn more about County of San Diego contact tracing efforts and what Sharp HealthCare is doing to screen for COVID-19.

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