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The latest South Carolina Public Radio News reports on the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to fight it.

Contact Tracing Finds People Possibly Exposed to Virus

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Tut Underwood/SC Public Radio

The coronavirus has generated a lot of phone calls.  Many are from friends and family checking on each other.  Many are to restaurants to place a take-out order.  And thousands in South Carolina are made by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

Those calls are from contact tracers, a term many have heard for the first time in recent weeks.  According to Dr. Jenny Meredith of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, "contact tracing is a standard disease control measure that's been used by public health as an important strategy for stopping disease transmission.  And what contact tracers do is they reach out to, and interview, each new positive coronavirus case, they determine the people who that case has been in close contact with, and they connect with those close contacts to gather further information and they ask them to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days." 

Contact tracing has been around for at least a century, perhaps longer.  DHEC has long employed contact tracers for cases of tuberculosis or hepatitis.  It typically has 20 on hand, but with the advent of COVID-19, it has put on hundreds more, and is adding more each day.

According to DHEC's Laura Renwick, as of July 13 the agency had 568 contact tracers, and 600 more have been trained.  Tracers from that pool are being added to the ranks daily.  

Even with hundreds of tracers, the challenge is keeping up with more than 1000 new cases per day, as has been the case in South Carolina in recent weeks.  Because each case can involve several  close contacts, Meredith said, "when you're reaching out to 5000 contacts that are generated on a single day, that can be quite labor intensive.  And (the tracers) reach out to them, a kind of virtual handshake, every day for their 14-day quarantine period.  So it is quite a labor intensive process." 

Dr. Brannon Traxler of DHEC's COVID-19 Incident Command said the tracers are discreet with their cases. "We do it all confidentially, so we do not disclose who the individual who tested positive is, to the contact.   Then we give them instructions, which for COVID-19 involves a quarantine and a recommendation for the second half of that quarantine to get tested."

Traxler said contact tracing is vitally important "especially for diseases like this one where we don't have a vaccine or a medication to cure it yet, it's so important that we do identify these contacts and ask them to quarantine." 

The job of a contact tracer doesn't get any easier when dealing with a person who has contracted the virus from a crowd, and doesn't know who he has been in close contact with.  And, according to Meredith, COVID can also present a challenge as to even when to be tested.  

"The tricky thing," she said, "is we don't know when people become ill with this virus.  The incubation period can be from a couple of days to two weeks.  So if you rush out and get yourself tested too soon, and you're not shedding enough virus to be detected, then you might need to be tested again a few days later if you begin to develop symptoms.  So getting tested right away isn't always the answer if you potentially had contact with somebody that had coronavirus."

Traxler said DHEC contact tracers will leave a message if they miss a client.  She added that if people would answer the phone or return the call when they hear the message ,and follow the department's common sense recommendations, those simple actions would be the biggest help to slowing the spread of the virus.