What is contact tracing?

 The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an important but often overlooked part of public health – disease investigations and contact tracing.

In January, COVID-19 was declared a Class A reportable disease by the Ohio Department of Health. Class A diseases have the potential for epidemic spread, so they must be reported immediately to the local health department.

“Once we receive a positive test result, we immediately begin investigating and contact tracing,” said Health Commissioner Julianne Nesbit.

Contact tracing is a public health process to prevent or slow the spread of disease. It involves an extensive interview with the patient, led by a trained epidemiologist, public health nurse, or communicable disease investigator.

“We go back to the day the patient likely became contagious and get a list of every person he or she came in close contact with,” said Nesbit.

That list includes people living in the same household, co-workers, friends or anyone else that was in close contact with the sick person while they were contagious. Close contacts are those that have been closer than six feet for ten minutes or more.

Once public health staff has all the contacts then they call every person on that list and see if they have symptoms and ask them to quarantine for 14 days.

Public Health staff maintain contact with patients with COVID-19 until they have met the criteria to come out of isolation.

“While we’re responding to each new COVID-19 case, we don’t stop investigating and following up with all other diseases that get reported to us,” said Nesbit.

In 2019, CCPH investigated more than 1,600 cases of communicable diseases. Some of those include influenza A, meningitis, hepatitis, chlamydia or any one of nearly 90 other reportable diseases.

Since class A diseases are required to be reported immediately, the CCPH communicable disease team receives phone calls at all hours of the day and on weekends.

“We always have a nurse on call 24/7, but with COVID19 we are getting a lot more phone calls at all hours,” said Nesbit.

The first positive case of COVID-19 in Clermont County was on March 20, but health departments were receiving calls before that.

Because this is a new virus, the Ohio Department of Health initially required all health departments to do contact tracing on patients that were under investigation for COVID-19 before a positive test was received. If a patient had the symptoms, and their physician thought it could be COVID-19 then the health department would do contact tracing. If the test came back negative, they could stop the tracing.

To keep up with the number of new cases and the number of people they need to track, CCPH has created strike teams. These teams are led by an experienced nurse but include employees from all areas of the agency.

“We’re training other staff members on how to do disease investigations, interview patients and make the phone calls involved in contact tracing,” said Nesbit. “It allows us to keep up with the number of new cases, and gives some of our nursing staff a chance to have an occasional day off.”

“This will be a long term response until we get a vaccine,” said Nesbit.”

For more information on COVID-19 in Clermont County, click here.

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