The Ins and Outs of Contact Tracing

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When a student gets a notice that they must quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, they often don’t think of all the work that has gone into that decision. Two of the people responsible for contact tracing at the high school laid out the entire process, which is more involved than some may think (design credit O. Leblanc).

Taylor Dent, Stampede Editor in Chief

“SHHS – Confirmed Positive Case.” It’s an email that everyone in the school has gotten, and it seems as though there’s a new one every day. For most students, this is just another email sitting in their inbox that doesn’t affect them. However, for some it means the start of a quarantine period. Deciding who has to quarantine and who does not is a lengthy, involved process.

“Any of that time that [the person who tested positive is] in school, from two days before their symptoms [started] to whenever they realized and stayed home, we have to do contact tracing here at school. This means pulling their seating charts, finding out if they or anybody around them didn’t have their mask on appropriately. Make sure they have the right kind of mask on. Do they participate in any extracurricular activities here at school? If so, talking to that leader/coach and finding out if they [were properly masked] on those days when they were considered infectious,” said Laurie Brueckner, school nurse.

This process is called “contact tracing” because it determines close contacts of the infected person/people. 

“Specifically here in Johnson County, a close contact is a combination of being within six feet for longer than 10 minutes,” said Melissa Ussery, COVID Cares employee.

But even once the nurses and contact tracers have determined close contacts, the process isn’t over.

“I take all of that information to the [Johnson County Department of Health and Environment], then they let me know if anybody needs to stay home for that 14 day period after they’ve been exposed,” said Brueckner.

These contact tracers are very thorough when it comes to finding out who may be infected.

“I have had people say before ‘no, I don’t think I was six feet apart [at lunch]’ so I have had them pull video from the cameras, and they were actually six feet apart. So it’s not just an automatic ‘yes everybody has to stay home,’” said Brueckner.

When it comes to things people can do to avoid becoming a close contact and having to quarantine, the answer is actually quite simple.

“Wear a mask. Always wear a mask, and the more distance the better…doing things virtually, handwashing. Ultimately, refer to the county’s guidelines and recommendations. Stay at home if you’re not feeling well. Definitely refer to your doctor and your health provider,” said Ussery.

If not for personal health and safety, it’s asked that people properly distance and mask to take care of others.

“The numbers are so high right now that it’s been a little difficult sometimes to keep up with it, and it’s starting to affect our staff. Not only is it scary, because adults are going to be hit harder than kids are, so sometimes kids aren’t as concerned about it. They forget that [some of] the teachers and the staff in the building are pretty worried about it. They test positive, and it weighs on them pretty heavily because they’re scared,” said Brueckner.

But more than anything, there is no personal vendetta against any one person or group, and quarantines are never advised without cause.

“We’re here to serve you and the community, we’re here to help. Not to do harm, so when you’re contacted it’s not something to be ashamed about, it’s not a bad thing. We just want to serve and care for everyone in our community,” said Ussery.

It is also important to remember that people are only human.

“[The health department is] really trying to make sure they’re telling the right people to stay home and not overreaching their boundaries. They’re just trying to keep everybody safe. Our numbers are really high right now, our hospital beds are full, and they’re having to try to make sure they’re stopping the virus from spreading. Just try to be understanding,” said Brueckner.

The contact tracing process is a well-thought out, scientifically proven method of stopping the spread of COVID-19. It’s based on research and evidence, and not something taken lightly by the hardworking people who do it every single day. So when a student gets an email telling them to quarantine, they can know that the order comes with a lot of thought and research behind it.

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