County dives deeper into COVID-19 contact tracing

More on the potential app next week

By Katherine Nettles

During an Incident Command meeting on Monday afternoon, Gunnison County health officials reviewed how traditional contact tracing for any communicable disease or illness works, and discussed how many parts make up the whole picture.

Due to a personal matter, the application developer who was scheduled to discuss more about how the Apple app would work had to be rescheduled for next week. Further details on the app will be provided next Monday at the Incident Command meeting at 2:30 p.m.

The traditional methods of contact tracing, explained Gunnison County Health and Human Services director Joni Reynolds, are already under way. And it is somewhat intensive for all involved.

“Each time [contact tracing] requires healthcare staff to contact the patient, understand patient confidentiality, also be familiar with medical terms and the terminology around exposure,” she explained. Reynolds also said staff needs to understand the virus and potential methods of exposure to others, the symptoms that may be presented and more.

“This is a standard we use around all communicable diseases,” said Reynolds. An example of other situations where staff uses this methodology, she said, is when people come into contact with bats and may need to be screened for and vaccinated against rabies.

“The goal is to identify and reduce risks, and to provide education and case support,” Reynolds said. In the case of COVID-19, the process goes back 48 hours from the patient’s onset of symptoms.

“We ask them, as they are dealing with being ill, to think back to 48 hours prior to when they had those symptoms to remember who they might have been around… Then we are doing the same type of work to reach out, get information and guidance to those contacts, helping them self-isolate to reduce spread likelihood,” Reynolds said. “It can take a lot of time.”

Reynolds said the county is getting some resource assistance from a program the state has unrolled, but there is no way around the actual work.

“If someone was involved at a large event, it can be pretty challenging. It can be challenging to record and track, get contact information for other people who came into potential contact, and for a person to recall those details, often while ill…,” Reynolds said. “This is where some technology can come in very handy.”

The app the county is considering can automatically and confidentially notify people when they have been exposed to a known positive COVID case, but Reynolds said people are never informed about who may have exposed them. They are advised that they should follow up with public health, and then there are resources available to assist them.

Laura McLoughlin, one of the nurses involved in the county’s contact tracing, said so far contact tracing has been manageable.

“We haven’t had to do too much yet,” she said. “The contact tracing will be following the emerging science,” she said, as it becomes available.

Andrew Sandstrom, who is acting as public information officer for the county’s coronavirus task force, said contact tracing is not meant to be the answer to suppress the disease completely.

“No one piece of these measures will stop COVID. But if we can get something from each of these, it can keep us in the Blue level,” he said referring to the color-coded risk indicator known as the Coronameter. Blue is a relatively safe level.

Sandstrom also fielded questions on the Facebook live stream, which Reynolds and others answered.

One question was about what defines “contact.” “If one of your co-workers were to test positive, would wearing a mask exclude you from that protocol?” Sandstrom asked as an example.

Nurse McLoughlin answered that anyone who came into contact with a positive case for more than 15 minutes is considered a contact. She said the staff tries to get contacts in for testing within 24 hours, and start a conversation of who their contacts would be if they tested positive. They also ask everyone to isolate for 14 days if they have come into contact with a known positive case.

“The contact of a known positive receives education around exposure, how to reduce exposing others, how to self-isolate, support for isolating—because that can present quite a challenge for people—and we make a test available to them within 24 hours. They are asked to stay at home for a period of time,” confirmed Reynolds.

Other questions included whether officials have seen or expect to see a bump in cases due to the recent protests or Memorial Day weekend.

“We have not seen a marked increase, but we do still continue to see positive tests in the community. And every test demonstrates the potential to spread to other people,” answered Reynolds.

Other questions submitted were about the app being included in the overall contact tracing budget, and why it was being pursued when survey results showed that a majority of people said they don’t want it. Sandstrom clarified that the app would be free, as an open source product; that the app would be voluntary; and that while none of those measures will stop the virus altogether, it all helps.

The last questions were more general about how public health order enforcement is going and why self-reporting data hasn’t been updated lately. Reynolds said they have overall been very pleased with compliance.

“It’s still new and we expect it to take some time but we are getting some folks who are reporting when they are concerned or unsure about businesses compliance,” she said.

As for self-reporting data, Sandstrom answered that data has been updated, but no one has self-reported recently. He encouraged people to do so. Reynolds agreed that self-reporting has proven an early indicator if an uptick is starting.

Check Also

Brief: Court

By Katherine Nettles Wickenhauser sentenced to four years in community corrections facility Gunnison Valley resident …