Testing and contact tracing vital to controlling COVID-19 spread

Jordan E. Gilbert / USMC

This vital work will create many well-paying jobs for community members

There has been a lot of discussion about COVID-19 in our recent articles, and deservedly so. We have talked about the cause, epidemiology and its spread, business and public facilities closures, social distancing, and of course the virus’ effect on our communities, especially communities of color.

One of the areas that will be vital to reopening our businesses and our community is COVID-19 testing, and what will be just as important, contact tracing. With any testing for the virus there will be people who are found positive with the virus. Being found positive does not necessarily mean that you will end up in the hospital with a life-threatening illness.

The problem with having the virus is not only what happens to the individual but also what happens to those they make contact with or spread the disease to. Those in turn, if they have any of the co-morbidities or illnesses you hear about—such as lung, disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, blood or other cancers that lower their immune system—they can have a more difficult course of action and even death. So that why it is important to do contact tracing.

The CDC says that given the magnitude of COVID-19 cases and plans to eventually relax mitigation efforts such as stay-at-home orders and social distancing, communities need a large number of trained contact tracers.

These contact tracers need to quickly locate and talk with the patients, assist in arranging for patients to isolate themselves, and work with patients to identify people with whom they have been in close contact so the contact tracer can locate them.

The actual number of staff needed for contact tracing is large and varies depending on a number of factors including but not limited to:

  • the daily number of cases;
  • the number of contacts identified;
  • how quickly patients are isolated and contacts are notified and advised to stay home, self-monitor, and maintain social distance from others.

Based on our current knowledge, a close contact is someone who was within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated. These contacts should stay home, maintain social distancing, and self-monitor until 14 days from the last date of exposure.

Identifying contacts and ensuring they do not interact with others is critical to protect communities from further spread. If communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

Contact tracers need to:

  • immediately identify and interview people with SARS CoV-2
  • infections and COVID-19 (i.e., disease);
  • support isolation of those who are infected;
  • warn contacts of their exposure, assess their symptoms and risk, and provide instructions for next steps;
  • link those with symptoms to testing and care.

Community responsibilities
Engagement of the public with contact tracers must be widely accepted in order to protect friends, family, and community members from future potential infections. Key public officials and community leaders will need to be engaged and supportive of contact tracing efforts.

Consider reaching out to community leaders as part of the neighborhood-level contact tracing team. To be successful, a community will need public awareness, understanding and acceptance of contact tracing and the need for contacts to separate themselves from others who are not exposed.

Community members need to take responsibility to follow the guidance from public health agencies. So, my message to you is that we need to request testing for our communities, and based on those results we need to perform contact tracing to protect our friends and loved ones.

Therefore ask—no, demand—that we test in neighborhood centers, churches, and healthcare facilities in our neighborhoods. We need to hire people from our communities to do the contact tracing that is vital to the health and welfare of all of us.

Yes, HIRE! These are well-paying jobs from either public health or contracted firms. More to come.

David Hamlar MD, DDS is an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Minnesota. He specializes craniofacial skull base surgery. He attended Howard University College of Dentistry (DDS) and Ohio State University (MD), and came to Minnesota for his fellowship in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Besides medicine, he is a retired Minnesota National Guardsman achieving the rank of major general. His passion today is empowering students of color to achieve their dreams of entering the medical professions as well as other STEM-oriented careers.