Case investigators in Montgomery County explain what contact tracing really means

Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 6:10 AM EDT
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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - Getting a phone call from your doctor or a Virginia Department of Health official telling you you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, or possibly been exposed to someone who tested positive, can be scary.

“With being a case investigator, sometimes we are the first person who is telling them those results,” Mariah Malachi said.

Contact tracing is one of the most important tools to fight against the spread of COVID-19. This procedure allows health officials to warn people of possible exposure to the virus and get them isolated as quickly as possible to protect vulnerable communities.

Contact tracing begins as soon as a positive COVID-19 case comes to the Virginia Department of Health.

“Someone from Virginia Department of Health or someone representing us will have a conversation first about themselves,” Jason Deese said.

Jason Deese, the deputy district epidemiologist for the New River Health District, said his team makes contact with a positive patient within 24 hours of receiving their results.

“Hi, my name is Mariah and I’m calling from the Virginia Department of Health," Malachi said in a contact tracing demonstration.

She along with her friend and roommate, Tullia Johnston, are two of the six full-time case investigators for the New River Valley.

“I am in the midst of finishing my masters in occupational therapy," Malachi said.

“I recently finished a masters of biomedical sciences at VCOM in Bluefield College,” Johnston said.

Both also have degrees in public health, which is what drew them to working as case investigators.

“I wanted to do something that was going to help the community and improve my resume and get real public health experience," Johnston explained.

Deese said most people on the team work 12 hours a day, many work seven days a week, to make sure they assist every person in the community who needs COVID-19 related help.

“Our people have been trained and we’ll get you the right advice,” he said. “We’ll get you linked to testing if that’s appropriate and we’ll give you the right advice on what to do in quarantine and isolation.”

“I’m going to go through a list of some symptoms with you and just let me know if it’s something you’ve experienced, okay?” Malachi said to her mock-patient over the phone.

With every new phone call, the team works to build a relationship with the patient by answering questions.

“That’s really what it’s all about is educating and letting people know that we’re here, and giving them what we know as a society right now about COVID," Johnston said.

Once the patients' questions are answered, the contact tracer will ask questions about possible close contact spread.

“Who they were around; who’s really at risk," Deese said. "What was the setting? Was it indoor or outdoor? That makes a huge difference in the assessment of the risk.”

Then they gather a list of people who may have been in close contact with that positive case.

“We will go back to two days before your symptoms started," Malachi said over the phone. "We want to get a list of people you may have been around for 15 minutes or more without a face mask within 6 feet?”

Jason Deese said that’s the criterion to determine a primary contact: anyone the patient has spent more than 15 minutes with in close proximity of 6 feet or less.

Contact tracers ask for these people’s names and phone numbers in complete confidentiality.

“Any phone call from the health department is completely protected by HIPPA," Johnston explained. "It’s private health information and it’s confidential.”

Though many fear being judged because they contract COVID-19, Deese and his team at New River are a judgement-free zone.

“People get exposed to COVID in many different ways," Deese said. "I’m less interested in that. I’m more interested in what we can do for the people around you and what we can do to prevent others around you from catching the illness.”

Patients can remain anonymous to their primary contacts if they wish. They can choose not to give permission to the case investigator or contact tracer to use their names when making phone calls to people they may have been exposed around.

Contact tracing focuses on primary contacts, not secondary contacts, meaning they don’t reach out to people who may have been exposed to someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Questions about COVID-19 and free testing in the New River Valley can be asked to the NRV Coronavirus hotline: (540) 267-8240.

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