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How the Department of Public Health uses contact tracing to track COVID-19
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Miranda Smith, left, and Emily Reeves, work Tuesday, May 19, 2020, at the District 2 Georgia Department of Public Health office as part of the contract tracing team. - photo by Scott Rogers

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the Georgia Department of Public Health’s contact tracers step in to help stop the spread.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus can have an incubation period of up to 14 days, with a median time of 4 to 5 days between infection and showing symptoms. People can infect others with the virus before they realize they have it.

“When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the contact tracer makes a call to that individual to identify potential contacts and lists them out for follow-up,” Ndubuisi Anyalechi, infectious disease coordinator for District 2 of the Department of Public Health, said.

Anyalechi said contact tracers focus on primary contacts like friends and family members. They reach out to people who came in contact with a COVID-19 positive person by being less than 6 feet away from them for at least 15 minutes.

“It’s kind of difficult because how do you account for all the people you come in contact with going into a store? But we try as much as possible to focus on those primary contacts,” Anyalechi said.

The amount of close contacts varies widely based on the COVID-positive person and their recent activities.

“If someone is continuing to work, and they’re going to work, and you have somebody who tests positive but they’ve been staying at home, the person at home is going to naturally have less contact than somebody who has been out and about,” Dave Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said.

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Ndubuisi Anyalechi is the infectious disease coordinator at the District 2 Georgia Department of Public Health office. - photo by Scott Rogers

Contact tracers reach out either by phone or text message to people who may have been affected to inform them that they have come in contact with someone with the virus and to enroll the contact in symptom monitoring. People will be asked to monitor and report any symptoms through a text messaging system, or they can call the Department of Public Health if they are unable to text. They are asked to stay home for 14 days after their last contact with the person who tested positive. 

People who develop symptoms will be asked to isolate themselves at home and will be referred for COVID-19 testing, or to seek medical care if necessary. The process is voluntary, and information will be kept confidential under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, according to the Department of Public Health’s guide to contact tracing.

Anyalechi said contact tracers are hired by the state and then assigned to districts. Hall County is in District 2, which covers several North Georgia counties, including Dawson, Forsyth, Habersham, Lumpkin and Banks. 

Epidemiologists and nurses do contact tracing for several notifiable diseases, including tuberculosis, meningitis and measles. Anyalechi said the contact tracing process for COVID-19 is similar to other diseases.

“It’s the same principle, where you have the individual who tested positive and you follow up with their contact and then ensure that they are promptly linked to care if need be,” Anyalechi said.

Contact tracing was used during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, as well as in the SARS outbreak in 2003, according to the Department of Public Health. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, District 2 of the Department of Public Health has about doubled its contact tracing staff. Palmer said before the pandemic, District 2 had about 16 to 20 people who were available to contact trace in the district’s 13 counties. As COVID-19 cases increased, District 2 reassigned some staff to assist with contact tracing, and now about 30 to 40 people are tracing the virus, Palmer said.

Palmer said the state is hiring more contact tracers, and District 2 could receive an additional 30 people.

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Infectious disease coordinator at the District 2 Georgia Department of Public Health office Ndubuisi Anyalechi, left, meets with the contract tracing team Tuesday, May 19, 2020, at their office on Athens Street in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
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