Tracking COVID-19: Local health officials talk about contact tracing

Coronavirus

Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana County health officials discuss contact tracing, its importance and how it works

BOARDMAN, Ohio (WKBN) – The fight against the coronavirus wages on and we’ve armored ourselves with masks and we’ve been defending ourselves with disinfectants, wipes and sanitizers. 

But, when it comes to a fight, you have to have the brains to go with the brawn – some intel – that’s where contact tracing comes into play. 

Local health officials broke down how it all works.

When an individual is reported positive, they interview with a contact tracer to see who they might have exposed to the virus. Health officials then contact those individuals.

According to Laura Fauss, of the Columbiana County Health District, their contact tracers focus on direct contact. 

“This person has been face-to-face within six feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes – masked or unmasked,” she said. 

Mahoning and Trumbull County health departments echoed these parameters as well. 

Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac added that when they talk with a person who tested positive, they ask them for the people they’ve been around two days prior to having symptoms. 

Fauss also made an important point. The county has its own health department, but so does East Liverpool and Salem City.  

“Even though our total number is high, our resident number is pretty low,” she said. 

Trumbull County Health Commissioner Frank Migliozzi highlighted the importance of speed in the contact tracing process. 

“The whole process of rapid identification of the case and then the contacts of the case is crucial to limiting the spread of infection in our community,” he said. 

He also mentioned that it is up to the people to help mitigate this virus. 

“I hope they realize the severity of the COVID spread in the community, and again, we can contain it together, or we can let it control us,” Migliozzi said. 

Tekac said contact tracing isn’t new, but the caseload is. 

Some of the other diseases that require contact tracing are Lyme disease, some STDs and tuberculosis.  

Right now, each health department has the caseload under control, but at the beginning, it was a lot to take on. 

Columbiana County had seven tracers but has been able to pair it down to two – one part-time and the other full-time. 

In the beginning, Mahoning County had three public health nurses as well as the director of nursing and the community health director.  

Recently, they hired two epidemiologists and they’ve brought on a medical student who volunteers part-time. 

The county also trained four health inspectors in the event that the workload became too much for everyone else. 

Migliozzi said Trumbull County had around two people for contact tracing when the pandemic started, and now the county has a pool of 17 individuals working on cases. 

If you are contacted as someone who might have been exposed, Tekac offers insight as to what to do. 

“The idea for those individuals that were potentially exposed is to self-quarantine for 14 days,” he said. “The idea is to ensure that they don’t expose anybody else in the event if they become positive.” 

He also suggests keeping your circle small so that it’s easier to identify and contact people that are potentially exposed, and to “trust the process” of contact tracing. 

“The contact tracing is another process, just as a mask to reduce the spread of the virus,” he said. “Some of the questions that you’re going to be asked are not going to be very difficult questions. We’re just trying to work through the process to be able to protect any of your loved ones or friends that you’re around.” 

Migliozzi said they are not trying to punish anyone by reaching out to them. 

“It is very important, though, that we do reach out to you, speak to you and get honest and truthful information so that we can limit those that have been exposed or that are infected from circulating out in the public and causing more widespread transmission of COVID,” he said. “The faster that we are able to do that, and the more accurate information, the faster we’ll be able to contain the spread in our community.” 

In Pennsylvania, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said contact tracing is critical to identify and prevent the spread of the virus. 

Studies in the state show that they need about 645 contact tracers and have 661 currently.  

That number could grow depending on a resurgence in the fall. 

Contact tracers are just a part of the puzzle.

Tekac likes to look at the pandemic and the concern of spreading the virus in terms of layers. 

“When we talk about those layers, those barriers, the 6-foot is a layer, me having a mask on is a layer, you having a mask on is a layer,” he said. “As soon as I take that off, that risk starts to be enhanced.”  

The more layers you have, the better contained the virus will be, he said.

An epidemiologist that works with Laura Fauss had an interesting way of looking at the pandemic. 

“It’s like we’ve been at school this whole time, and we did all the hard work,” she said. “We did the mid-term, we stayed home, we self-isolated, we bought toilet paper, and now we’re at the final exam, and we can fail, and all that hard work was for nothing, or we could really like push and do a really good job.”

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