The Tracers: Tracking COVID-19 Contacts

By Cece Nunn, posted May 19, 2020
Nikki Todd
Much of the time, people already know.

“From our experience, 99% of the people when we call them, they know that they’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” said Nikki Todd, a registered nurse and community health supervisor for New Hanover County.

Todd leads a team of public health care professionals who are also trained to be contact tracers. They track down individuals who might have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and other communicable diseases, such as measles, hepatitis A, B and C, HIV, whooping cough and others.

“There’s over 90 reportable conditions that public health investigates if it’s reported in New Hanover County,” Todd said. “COVID-19 is not that much different in that we contact those folks that are positive for COVID-19 and then we get their contacts ...

"Contact tracing is the best control measure that we have to stop the spread of COVID-19 in New Hanover County.”

And the earlier the trace is completed the better, Todd said, “so we can properly isolate them from their work and their families and their community as needed.”

Contact tracing begins on individual cases the day that a positive case is identified. As of 4 p.m. Monday, New Hanover County had 140 lab-confirmed cases. There have been three deaths associated with COVID-19 in the county.

Todd said the contact tracing process involves an extensive investigation into where the person with the virus has been and their medical history.

Tracers ask who the COVID-19 patient was in contact from 48 hours before their symptoms began until the individual isolated himself or herself and whether he or she has been in contact closer than 6 feet to anyone for more than 10 minutes in their home, workplace or another environment, she said.

Contacts are asked to monitor themselves for symptoms, “and if they develop symptoms they need to let us know and to call their health care provider,” Todd said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of COVID-19 might appear two to 14 days after exposure and can include: 
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
Those with symptoms can call the county’s coronavirus call center at 798-6800 to schedule a free test or potentially be tested by their health care provider.

Todd said, “Certainly if their symptoms increase to a level where they need to be seen at the emergency room, they need to call first or call 911.”

While most of the time contacts aren’t surprised, every once in a while they are, but those who have tested positive are mainly cooperative “because we try to get a good rapport going with them,” Todd said.

She added, “People are pretty willing to step up and take responsibility for protecting their family, their friends, the place they work and the community they live in.”
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