CORONAVIRUS

What happens after someone tests positive for the coronavirus? Tracking the contact tracers

Sleuths try to retrace steps to see who else was exposed

Dustin Hinrichs, Linn County Public Health food and aquatic safety branch supervisor, stands Friday outside the Dr. Perc
Dustin Hinrichs, Linn County Public Health food and aquatic safety branch supervisor, stands Friday outside the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Linn County Public Health Building in Cedar Rapids. He has been working with the department to advise businesses and organizations on how to implement best practices for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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When people test positive for COVID-19, how are others they’ve been around notified?

Often, with the help of contact tracers.

Whether a person’s test is conducted at a doctor’s office, a hospital or a Test Iowa site, positive results are sent to the public health department in that person’s county.

From there, contact tracers start their detective work — calling the person and asking questions to try to track the path of the virus through the community.

Their goal is to pinpoint both where someone contracted the virus and who else may have been exposed.

Susan Vileta, health educator at Johnson County Public Health, said people are considered infectious two days before they first exhibit symptoms. So the tracers ask people to provide names and contact information for anyone in that period they were within 6 feet of for 15 minutes or more. If the person is asymptomatic, tracers ask for the names of everyone they were around 48 hours before they got tested.

The contact tracers then call those people and tell them they have been exposed to the coronavirus and should isolate for 14 days. Members of the person’s household are also supposed to isolate. If they are not sick themselves, household members are told to try to stay away from the infected person as much as possible.

When the contact tracers call people who potentially have been exposed, they will not identify the person who tested positive, but will simply say they have information the people have been in contact with a positive case.

Linn County Public Health food and aquatic safety branch supervisor Dustin Hinrichs said the tracers would not divulge the name of someone with a positive test to that person’s employer.

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Usually, Vileta said, employees already have told their bosses because they need to stay home for 14 days.

“Employers often can help with some of that contact tracing, because they know their environment and we don’t,” Vileta said. “Often, the employer will say, ‘I definitely want to talk to my employees about that so we can work together in terms of contact tracing.’”

However, employees are not legally required to inform their bosses if they have the coronavirus, and the businesses are not legally required to inform customers or to close for cleaning if an employee tests positive.

“We don’t have the authority to close any people down,” Vileta said. “It becomes a business decision and a public health decision if they’re concerned enough that they want to take a cautious approach.”

It may not even be necessary, she added, from a public health perspective. She said it is impossible to issue a blanket recommendation for how employers should respond since each place of business is different.

“They don’t have to if they have enough staff to keep operating and can clean the areas where that employee was and worked,” she said. “Recommendations sometimes are pretty unique depending on each business.”

She normally works on tobacco prevention and control, but these days spends most of her time on coronavirus-related tasks, primarily helping businesses navigate best practices for keeping employees and customers safe.

“We, since the beginning, have said, ‘Please call us, we’re happy to walk you through it,’” she said.

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She said the department has hired 27 people to do contact tracing, in addition to the roughly 47 regular employees, most of whom have been cross-trained and are working on coronavirus-related tasks. She said about 10 people, including herself, spend time talking to businesses.

In Linn County, Hinrichs said though his normal job of restaurant and other in-person inspections were largely paused when the pandemic arrived, he’s been busy developing guidance documents and talking with businesses and event organizers about COVID-19 safety.

The department currently has about 10 people doing contact tracing.

Though Gov. Kim Reynolds has allowed businesses in Iowa to fully reopen, restaurants and bars are still supposed to maintain 6 feet of distance between each party under an emergency declaration extended through July 25.

However, Hinrichs said the county department does not have the authority to enforce or monitor compliance — that’s up to police.

“Social distancing is a requirement, but it is hard to enforce that. The only enforcement would come from law enforcement,” he said. “Ultimately what we can do at this point is recommend. We don’t have the authority to require things.”

Both he and Vileta said people wondering if a business is safe to visit should look at things like whether employees and customers are wearing masks and if social distancing is being followed.

People should also consider how long they will be inside a business and near other people, and things like ventilation; being outdoors is safer than being indoors.

“I really don’t recommend spending any time indoors you don’t need to with individuals who aren’t part of your household. Indoor air turnover rates have a big impact on transmissibility,” he said. “Honestly I don’t recommend eating out at all right now except for takeout.”

Vileta said each individual is responsible for assessing how much risk to take.

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“We’re at a place where we can’t all stay home forever, and we can’t go back to normal right now,” she said. “So in everything folks do, they’re taking on a certain amount of risk.”

Hinrichs stressed the importance of masks.

“I would encourage people to look past the politics of wearing a mask. I don’t want people to have a biased view on wearing a mask based on anything other than science, and science says if you wear a mask you protect yourself and everyone around you,” he said. “Unfortunately we don’t have a vaccine, and it could be some time before we do, but we do know something we can do is to wear a mask.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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