CORBIN — “It’s not a grand conspiracy to track people,” said Whitley County Public Health Director Marcy Rein about the continued emphasis on contact tracing. “I think there’s a suspiciousness about our motives. We are just trying to keep the community as safe as possible by identifying those with known exposure and trying to reduce their movement.”
On May 18, Gov. Andy Beshear called on Kentuckians to support contact tracing. Yet many in the Commonwealth don’t support it and have misconceptions about the health initiative. Some think of it as a more GPS-like monitoring process, but local health officials deny that type of tracking is taking place in Kentucky.
“Team Kentucky needs you — answer the call if a public health worker contacts you. Contact tracing is key to protecting the health of our communities as we begin to reopen our economy,” Beshear said. “We are relying on more testing combined with increased contact tracing and for everyone to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Many believe that contact tracing is a new and intimidating response to the coronavirus pandemic. Rein wanted to remind community members that this isn’t a new thing in public health care.
“We have done and still do this for other things that come through our door in spite of COVID-19,” Rein said.
For example when an individual gets food poisoning, contact tracing is used to find out where the bad food came from. Rein said it is also used in cases of tuberculosis.
The information you provide when you get tested is protected by the Health Insurance and Portability Protection Act (HIPPA), just like going to your healthcare provider for other means of care. The information shared with health departments during contact tracing is similarly protected.
Rein said this is a public health emergency so there are statutes and regulations in place that require a sharing of certain information during public health emergencies and communicable diseases. The information a patient gives the health department will go in a database called National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS) operated by the CDC.
This system, according to the CDC, ensures the security of protected health information by meeting the requirements of HIPPA and additional state and federal requirements. Jurisdictions are encouraged to collect the minimum amount of information needed to perform public health functions, and access to the information is restricted. Information is stored and exchanged in accordance with current data security standards. NBS does not transmit patient identifying information (such as names, street addresses, telephone numbers, etc.) to CDC.
“That’s how that CDC or the state recognizes there’s a problem because we see there’s a spike,” said Rein. “Then we can target resources to the area and figure it out, prevent further cases and protect the community.”
Rein described what the process of contact tracing looked like for a patient who tests positive to COVID-19.
An employee with the health department would call the patient. Rein or another employee would then begin a series of questions about when and why the patient got tested. Some general verification questions such as address, date of birth and demographics are asked.
There are specific symptom questions as well as a few general health questions for the patient.
The patient is asked to tell the staff member about where they work, recent travel, shopping, church, community events they may have attended and who lives in their home.
The patient can answer questions for the others in the household or have an employee contact them. The questions would be similar to the ones asked of the positively tested patient. If a co-worker was at risk and the positive patient did not have their information they would be asked to provide a supervisor's phone number.
“The reality is most people have already made calls to the people they’ve had contact with and they’ve already called their employer,” said Rein.
The health department would then explain instructions for the patient to safely isolate. The patient and the health department will communicate daily. The health department makes sure the patient has a way to take their temperature, has access to groceries and medication being delivered, safe childcare and is offered a note for work.
Contact tracing, which is funded through the CARES Act, is expanding to meet both the White House and Governor’s benchmarks for safely reopening the economy. Each state and territory is using contact tracing as a tool to fight the spread of COVID-19. Rein reiterated it as as way to stop the spread and keep the community safe.