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Tracking COVID-19: How the health dept. identifies anyone exposed

Posted at 11:04 PM, May 14, 2020

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Dozens of staff members and volunteers at the Kent County Health Department are working to track down anyone who may have been directly exposed to COVID-19 as part of the county's "contact tracing" program.

Contact tracing has been around for decades as a tool that public health agencies use to track the spread of different kinds of bacteria or viruses, such as tuberculosis or HIV. Kent County is now using that same tool to trace people who may have been directly exposed to COVID-19.

"Tuberculosis is a very good example, where we identify a person who has tuberculosis, and then we look to all those individuals in their social circle, their household, their workplace - all those individuals who may have been at risk for exposure to that person who was sick," said Kent County epidemiologist Brian Hartl. "We do the same thing here with coronavirus, so we're well versed in this type of investigation."

About 70 staff members are currently dedicated to contact tracing, including employees who formerly performed other duties in different departments. Additionally, volunteers are also being asked to help.

For every single person that receives a positive COVID-19 test, the health department is responsible for speaking with anyone who may have been exposed. This includes anyone who was in close proximity to the COVID patient during the 48-hour period leading up to symptoms or after they got sick. They then recommend those exposed people to self-isolate.

"It's a very important piece of controlling the spread," said Hartl. "Then we educate the patients themselves and talk to them about isolating themselves for a period of time when they have symptoms and 10 days after the onset of their symptoms."

In the past, the team has been responsible for contacting up to 20 people for just one COVID-19 positive patient. With Kent County seeing an increase of 80 and 100 COVID cases per day, the task can become daunting.

“So it's really something that can balloon into a much larger investigation depending on how many of those close contacts actually have symptoms.”

The health department is still working on finding volunteers. If you are interested in helping, you can learn more here.