Local contract tracers working hard to keep up with growing COVID-19 numbers

Although the rising tide of COVID-19 cases makes it difficult to keep up, the local team of contact callers and tracers have been working diligently to stem the spread of the virus by identifying people who have been exposed.

Emma Smales, health planning supervisor for the Clark County Combined Health District, runs the agency’s seven-person contact tracing team. Health district epidemiologist Anna Sauter heads a group of 25 contact tracers trying to reach people who test positive or have a likelihood of being infected.


“The whole point of contact tracing is to be able to put a barrier from having the virus spread,” Smales says. “It spreads through people, and usually people don’t know they’ve been exposed. If we can find those people who don’t know they’re exposed and encourage them to isolate, we can keep them from being in close contact with others and spreading to more people (who are) unknown.”


Earlier this year, the Ohio Department of Health provided $465,000 to support local contact tracing – primarily the hiring of extra staff for the team. Another $94,000 has been allocated for next year, and Smales says ODH is expected to provide more funds.


Most contact tracing starts with getting reports of positive tests from labs, which are required to notify the Health District of a positive result within 24 hours. About 10 percent of cases are people who self-identify as having been in close contact with a person testing positive, Smales says. A close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of a person for 15 minutes or more.


Contact tracers call people who have tested positive and ask them about their close contacts. Smales' team calls the contacts to inform them that they have been exposed to someone who tested positive.


“People who test positive or are probable cases will be told to quarantine 10 days from the start of their symptoms or from the date their test was done,” Smales says. “Close contacts should quarantine for 14 days from the last contact with the infected or positive person.”


In recent weeks, the flood of new cases has made it impossible for the contact tracers to keep up with their caseload. In early November, there was a backlog of more than 350 cases, with about 80 new cases coming in daily, Smales says. But contact tracers could only contact 50 to 70 people each day. To clear the backlog, the Health District sent letters to the 350 people so they would receive the information in printed form.


“At that point, there was no way we were going to dig out of that hole,” Smales says. “Contact tracing is something we have always done for diseases, such as syphilis, HIV, measles. But to do it in this volume is new.


“We really want people to understand we work as much as possible. We work weekends, we work 10-hour days, sometimes more, and we can’t keep up. We can’t let up right now.”


Nonetheless, Smales says the health district has retained everyone who was originally hired, except for some college students who had to return to school after the summer. Most of their interactions with callers are positive and generally people want to cooperate.

“Most people want to help and make sure their friends and family stay safe,” Smales says.


Anyone interested in being a contact tracer or caller should look for open positions posted on the Health District website. Starting pay is $15 per hour, and Smales says the position has no specific requirements, other than a high school diploma. Contact tracers should be able to learn quickly and to conduct interviews by phone.


Since May 26, Clark State Community College has had 116 people complete a 10-hour non-credit training in contact tracing. Lesli Beavers, director of workforce and business solutions for the college, says the training is offered continually, with start dates every two weeks, and should continue throughout the spring.


Beavers, who teaches the class, says the college has not tracked how many of the students have become contact tracers but has tried to connect health districts and businesses with those who have completed the training.


“We created this course specifically in response to COVID-19, hoping to assist our health districts and the State by providing a trained workforce pipeline to be able to quickly begin the important work of contact tracing,” she says.

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Read more articles by Steve Schlather.