WSAZ Investigates | Contact Tracing

Health Departments are relying on community participation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Published: Jun. 29, 2020 at 6:29 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - As more counties in our area see an upward trend of coronavirus cases, some experts say the key to fighting the virus boils down to contact tracing.

Think of it like this: from the moment a case is confirmed, health professionals begin working with that person to retrace their steps.

If you get a call from a local health department, they might have some questions for you.

“Going back hundreds of years with the understanding of contagion, we’ve been practicing this,” said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department. “It’s a proven technique that slows the spread and helps prevent cases of this disease.”

Contact tracing has been used for other outbreaks as well, you may remember a multi-state outbreak of hepatitis A a few years ago.

“We called a lot of people,” Kilkenny said. “We told them how to avoid the spread of this disease, we told them where they could get a vaccine or the treatment.”

Once a health department identifies someone with coronavirus through testing, they’ll reach out to the patient to identify who they’ve been in contact with and where they’ve been.

The process is voluntary but health professionals say it’s critical to preventing the spread of the virus.

“That job is a really difficult job,” said Dr. Kilkenny. “We actually have a 24 hour, 7 day a week process by which we can accept information about contacts and contact tracing.”

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department has conducted more than 600 interviews with people who may have been potentially exposed to COVID-19.

Kilkenny says since more testing is done in Cabell County as a referral center, they make the first contact with a patient. If they identify that they are from another county, they’ll hand the case over to their local health department.

“We have a lot of testing capacity, but we don’t have unlimited testing capacity. While we’ve improved. We are just somewhat better than what we were two months ago.”

Dr. Michael Kilkenny

Other countries and even some states are developing apps to better track where residents are going to help identify who may have been exposed to the virus.

“I think I’ve been keeping pretty decent track,” said Clark Lewis. “I’ve been trying to reduce my outdoor activities.”

For some, that brings up concerns of privacy. Several Cabell County residents say they just want everyone to do their part.

“I think this virus, pandemic’s not gonna go away anytime soon and I think we still gotta have our guard up all the way,” said Mike Muth.

Both Apple and Google are offering coronavirus contact tracing implementation on their devices; that feature can be found under settings.

“Better understanding of contract tracing is something the public should always be aware of,” Kilkenny said. “We’re always uncomfortable talking about it because of its confidential nature. Not because we’re trying to hide it, we do not tell other people your business.”

To keep the communication line open, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department is utilizing a text-based system to monitor patients symptoms with recommendations about how long the quarantine should last.

Kilkenny says the more community support, the better the outcome for its residents.

“We really like to see the face coverings in Cabell County,” Kilkenny said. “I’m not the police to tell you to wear one or not. I’m encouraged when I go into a store, and workers are wearing them.”

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department currently has eight contact tracers. At one point, they had as many as 16, and if cases continue to increase, they’re prepared to employ more than 30.

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