Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye discusses the role of contact tracers in fighting the spread of COVID-19.
Can you explain to our readers what a contact tracer does?
Contact investigation and tracing are strategies that we use in public health for lots of different communicable diseases. It’s not unique to COVID-19. When we are notified about a positive case, and usually this comes from either a lab report or from a health care provider, a contact tracer calls the individual to verify the diagnosis; to make sure that if they need treatment they have the appropriate treatment; and, in the case of COVID-19, make sure they are aware of the isolation requirements. In addition, the contact tracer will ask about when they started exhibiting symptoms and the places they have been in order to determine any other people who may have been exposed. Then the tracer tries to get the contact information for those people so they can take the appropriate measures.
How are issues of confidentiality handled?
The tracers get training on HIPAA laws and confidentiality. All of the information is entered into secure databases in the county system. The tracers know that the information they are receiving cannot be shared with anyone else. If someone we interview gives us names and phone numbers of other people to contact, we don’t say who gave that information to us.
What helps make a person receptive to talking?
It’s about trying to build a rapport with the person so that they understand why we’re asking for the information. The tracers get training on how to do interviews and how to introduce themselves, explaining that they are representing the county. They also answer questions about the disease itself because often people have questions about that and about how the data is going to be handled.
What if they hang up?
It depends. Sometimes it’s not a good time for the person to talk, but they may talk later. If the person does not want to give the information, then the interview will end at that point.
Can most people recall where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with?
Some people can remember. When we first started seeing the recent spike in cases, they often would know where or who they got it from, either because the infected person had already called them or they might realize later they were in a place that was a source of infection.
What should someone do if they are called by a contact tracer?
Be willing to listen to what information you are receiving. Find out where you can go to get tested. Also, ask questions about what you need to look out for in terms of symptoms.