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How contact tracing works

Published: Jun. 19, 2020 at 3:47 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Recently Rebecca Valentine found herself self-quarantined at home after contracting COVID-19 at her church.

“Where in all honesty quite a few of us were in contact with each other,” says Valentine. As it would turn out, she would be one of 23 people at her church who would test positive to the virus.

Most likely some of those patients, as well as their diagnosis, were discovered through contact tracing.

Carson City Epidemiologist Dustin Boothe says the concept is not new. “We’ve done contact tracing with other illness like Measles, Pertussis, Tuberculosis, and in some cases sexually transmitted disease,” says Booth. The common denominator, those diseases, along with COVID-19, are highly contagious and pose a public health threat.

However, because there is no treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, contact tracing becomes even more crucial.

Here's how it works:

Once a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, health department staff will ask the patient who he or she has come in contact with. The criteria: no social distancing and that contact lasted more than 15 minutes. Those contacts are alerted they may have been exposed to the virus. They are tested and asked about their contacts. Some contacts may test negative to the virus. But those who are positive will be asked to self-quarantine themselves for two weeks. “By putting them in quarantine, we limit their movement and their spread of the disease to anyone else. And so, we stop that next phase,” says Boothe. Those interviewing the patient must be skilled; so, the patient feels comfortable giving out personal information, as well as their contacts’ phone numbers or other information.

However, a study out of Boston says the tracing does not have to be perfect. If health officials can identify half of symptomatic cases with COVID-19, they can trace 40% of their contact.

Just that reduction in transmission can allow for the opening of a local economy all the while maintaining a health care system that can handle the COVID-19 patient load. Boothe says as Nevada opens up its economy, contact tracing will become even more crucial, and more labor intensive.

Copyright 2020 KOLO. All rights reserved.

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