Escambia Department Of Health Ramps Up Contact Tracing Efforts
It’s likely you didn’t hear the words “contact tracing” much before the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s a common tool of defense when it comes to infectious diseases.
“Contact tracing is vital when it comes to the public health response to COVID, just as it is for a lot of communicable diseases,” said Patti Dwiggins, COVID supervisor at the Department of Health in Escambia County. “We aim to make contact with every individual who has tested positive. Of course, we also want to reach out to every individual who has been named as someone who has come in close contact as well.”
Since January, the county health department has put more focus on contact tracing, suspending its testing efforts to give staff more time to make calls.
There’s approximately 18 staff members working on contact tracing, says Dwiggins. Before January, that same team was splitting their time between testing and contact tracing.
“We have partners in the community who are doing testing (who) we work in close conjunction with,” said Dwiggins. “With ample places to receive testing, we have suspended testing for the time being unless we see a need.”
As of Thursday, there were 32,484 positive COVID cases in the county. Based on the last two weeks of data, Escambia County averages around 130 cases a day — that can be a lot of calls.
The goal of contact tracing is education, said Dwiggins.
“This investigation allows us to prevent the further spread of or transmission of the disease,” she said. “People can be asymptomatic so that’s why it’s essential to reach out to these contacts so we can educate them about isolation, quarantine and the difference between the two.”
With isolation, the goal is to separate sick people from those who aren’t. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who are exposed to a virus to see if they become sick.
Even a year into the pandemic, the restrictions on infected people can still be confusing.
“I’ve had people who tested positive say to me ‘yes, my kids are here quarantining with me,’” said Dwiggins. “And we have to explain, well, they need to be separate from you. You don’t want to expose other family members.”
“We let them know when they can return to work, resume normal activity — although you continue daily life with precaution,” she said. “And that’s how you stop the spread.”
Health departments across the country have expressed the difficulty of contact tracing, and a PEW Research study released in October 2020 illustrated those issues. According to the study, 40% said they were wary or resistant to speak to a public health official. It may not be surprising to know that 80% said they don’t answer calls from unknown numbers, which is why Dwiggins said tracers will make multiple calls before moving on. Text messages have also provided good responses, she said.
Overall, Escambia has been receptive.
“What we’re doing is perceived very well, but there’s always going to be exceptions to that,” said Dwiggins. “There have been a few that said they don’t want to participate and that’s unfortunate.”
Dwiggins credits some of the department’s success is how tracers approach the task. Building a rapport is a top priority.
“When I reach out to somebody, the first thing I’m going to ask is how are you doing,” she said. “Obviously, yes, I need to know other more personal information. You have such a short opportunity to build a rapport with the person.”
The information collected through contact tracing is kept in a statewide database. If a person tests positive in one county, but lives in another county, their information will be redirected.
“We see people who test positive in our county, but live in another county — even out of state,” said Dwiggins. “Being in the area we’re in that does happen a lot.
For out-of-state cases, database developers will contact the proper health departments with important information.
For now, Dwiggins said the extra efforts to contact tracing will continue indefinitely. The county’s positivity rate is used as a gauge to measure success, which has lowered, compared to recent weeks and stayed below 8% the last few days, but ticked back up Thursday.
“We have seen other trends that have gone down and spiked back up hopefully it will be a trend,” said Dwiggins. “We have to see more than one or two dips to consider it a trend.”
So, if you get a call from the health department, answer it. Or, at least listen to the voicemail and return the call.
“We can’t get any information if we don’t get response,” said Dwiggins. “We want to keep the residents in our community safe and healthy.”