Breaking down the process of contact tracing


Jacquelyn Abad reports on daily life for a contact tracer

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — More than 3,000 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in Multnomah County to date.

As an effort to contain the virus, Oregon’s most populated county has employed several contact tracers to reach out to people who might have been exposed.

County health officials said they wanted a contact tracing team that reflects the community.

“With this ramp up to hire more case investigators and contact tracers that’s really one thing we have been mindful to make sure who we are hiring is reflecting the communities that we are serving so you have that cultural connection,” said Senior Communicable Disease Epidemiologist Taylor Pinsent.

The Process

The county’s health department has 15 contact tracers and 45 case investigators currently in place. They are part of a 77-person COVID team.

The process starts when someone tests positive for COVID-19, their doctor notifies the Health Department. A case investigator will then reach out to the person who tested positive to see who might have been exposed.

“Our case investigators are kind of a disease detective,” said Pinsent. Case investigators ask a series of questions like where they have been exposed before their symptoms started as well as places where they would have exposed others.

Once they know who may have been exposed, contact tracers reach out to notify them. Those who have been in contact with a confirmed case are then asked to either quarantine or isolate for two weeks to help stop the spread.

“Our recommendation is to watch for symptoms for the next 14 days, we go over what those symptoms might look like and then we enroll them in active monitoring,” said Pinsent.

On average, for every case a person tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracers and case investigators reach out to 5 to 6 other people.

“With the increase in case counts that we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks – it’s a lot. It’s a lot of calls we have to make but its good timing in the sense of we have hired a lot more people and we are training them up so we can keep up on the top of case load and contact load,” said Pinsent.

Case investigators said the majority of people they reach out to do their part to stay home, although it can be difficult getting ahold of certain people. Additionally, there are some people who are uncomfortable about sharing health information.

“When we reach out to you we always introduce ourselves, we explain why we are calling, we will confirm your date of birth even before we start speaking to you,” said Pinsent.

County officials said information is kept private. They also said contact tracers will never ask for social security numbers or credit card information. If someone is concerned about the legitimacy of a call, they can ask for the contact tracer’s name and reach out to their local health department.

“We are in this for the long haul so this isn’t something that’s going to disappear, ” said Pinsent. “So people need to be mindful of their interactions with family and friends knowing that this virus affects people in different ways.”

For more information about Multnomah County’s contact tracing program, head here.

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