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Public health contact tracers, often overlooked, in spotlight with COVID-19 pandemic

Public health contact tracers, often overlooked, in spotlight with COVID-19 pandemic

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series
Election Day with COVID-19

Sisters Kelly and Teal Rowe work behind a plexiglass barrier April 7 while waiting to verify voters in Wisconsin's spring election in the town of Dunn. Contact tracers call people confirmed to have COVID-19 and their close contacts to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and potentially identify sources of transmission, which could include the election though evidence is unclear.

When Dane County’s COVID-19 cases started to climb, Caitlin Gutierrez was pulled from her regular job at Public Health Madison and Dane County as a nurse doing home visits with high-risk pregnant women.

She became a coronavirus contact tracer, calling people who test positive for COVID-19 and those they are in close contact with, and encouraging both groups to stay away from others to reduce the spread.

Contact tracing, a little-known but routine function of public health agencies, helps curb outbreaks of measles, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and other infections. Now the work has become a much-discussed tool to fight the coronavirus and reopen the economy.

Caitlin Gutierrez

Caitlin Gutierrez, a public health nurse with Public Health Madison and Dane County, is working as a contact tracer for COVID-19.

“In addition to increasing our testing capacity, we also need to bolster our contact tracing efforts,” Gov. Tony Evers said this week in announcing his plan to eventually loosen restrictions on businesses and lift his “safer at home” order implemented March 25.

The governor’s “Badger Bounce Back” plan, released Monday, calls for hiring 1,000 more people to do contact tracing for COVID-19. That is on top of 250 state workers who recently have been reassigned and trained to assist local health departments in contact tracing, and another 100 workers expected to be trained soon, said Traci DeSalvo, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health Services.

“As things are beginning to open up and people are back out in the public more, what we really want to do is reach those contacts quickly and ensure they are following appropriate quarantine so we’re reducing the potential risk of exposure to other people,” DeSalvo said. “It becomes even more important as people are out and about more once ‘safer at home’ is over.”

In Dane County, the local health department typically has a dozen people who do contact tracing as part of their jobs — calling people who test positive for an infection, learning who they’ve been in contact with and calling those contacts to recommend action to reduce transmission to others.

Now, the agency has 36 people doing contact tracing for COVID-19, including 10 retirees who returned to help, said Sarah Mattes, spokeswoman for Public Health Madison and Dane County.

Since mid-March, Gutierrez has been one of them. Working from home, she calls residents who test positive for COVID-19 and explains that they should isolate themselves for at least a week and until three days after they no longer have a fever. She interviews them for 45 minutes or so to learn how they may have been infected, if possible, and who they may have exposed to the virus.

People who live in the same household are considered at high risk of acquiring COVID-19. Anyone who spent at least 10 minutes within 6 feet of the person who tested positive, as early as two days before the person got sick, is at medium risk, Gutierrez said.

She or other nurses call those people. If they already have symptoms, they are treated as probable cases and asked to self-isolate. If they don’t, they are asked to quarantine, avoiding others for two weeks. If they develop symptoms, they are asked to call their doctor and discuss possible testing.

Low-risk contacts are not being called, and follow-up calls to check on people with COVID-19 and their higher-risk contacts were stopped in late March because the volume of work increased, Gutierrez said.

However, the number of contacts per person has generally declined in recent weeks as more people are staying at home. “It makes our web of contacts a lot smaller and decreases the spread,” she said.

Gutierrez, 27, who grew up in Fitchburg and graduated from UW-Madison, started working at the local health department two years ago after getting a nursing degree at Edgewood College.

She misses doing home visits with pregnant women and new mothers, but said responding to the pandemic and providing worried patients and contacts helpful information is rewarding.

“We’re going to continue to do contact tracing and follow-up for as long as we need to,” she said. “It is super important work.”

Photos: A look at how COVID-19 is affecting Wisconsin

“(Contact tracing) becomes even more important as people are out and about more once ‘safer at home’ is over.” Traci DeSalvo, epidemiologist

“(Contact tracing) becomes even more important as people are out and about more once ‘safer at home’ is over.”

Traci DeSalvo, epidemiologist


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