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Contact Tracing: An Important Tool in Fighting COVID-19 as Vaccinations Pick Up

Public Health & Safety

The Florida Department of Health in Orange County (DOH-Orange) is helping slow the spread of COVID-19 in the region by performing contact tracing, a critical public health strategy that involves identifying people who may have been in close contact with an individual who has COVID-19. Contact tracing lets people know they may have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and should monitor their health for signs and symptoms of the virus.

“Many communicable diseases, including COVID-19, can be spread by people who don’t appear to be sick,” explained Alvina Chu, DOH-Orange County Epidemiology Program Manager. “Since these individuals feel well, they’re unlikely to get tested and may not know they’re carrying the virus. Contact tracing helps us learn who these asymptomatic carriers are so they can be informed about appropriate prevention measures, including testing and self-isolation.”

Contact tracing has been used during outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections, Ebola, measles, and now COVID-19. The job of the contract tracer is to collect information and provide guidance to help contain the transmission of disease, help those who may have been exposed get tested, and ask people to self-isolate or self-quarantine if they are an exposed close contact.

“We reach out to patients who test positive and ask them questions about symptoms, exposure history and also offer guidance,” explained Shayla Rhodes, contact tracer with the DOH-Orange County. “By asking these questions, we’re able to create a list of places and people they’ve been in contact with and give their exposed close contacts the appropriate precautions to take.”

Rhodes is part of the DOH’s COVID-19 team and has been trained to perform contact tracing specifically for COVID-19. The information she and her team collect is given to DOH epidemiologists who look for trends and attempt to slow down the virus’s spread, which is why obtaining accurate information is imperative.

“When someone is asymptomatic but infectious, getting a call from us often catches them off guard,” explained Ciara Williamson, contact tracer with the DOH-Orange County. “We’re contacting people who literally have no clue they’ve been exposed, so they’re usually thankful for the call, but also shocked and concerned at the same time.”

Williamson admits that although the questions they ask are not too personal, people can feel uncomfortable giving out information over the phone, especially to a stranger, but part of a contact tracers’ job is to remain diligent. “Talking to people under these circumstances can be tricky, but it gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing I helped them,” she said. “It’s great to be part of a team that helps provide support to the community during this difficult time.”

For updates on COVID-19, including testing and vaccination sites, go to Florida Department of Health in Orange County and Orange County Government. If you have COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID, visit Orange County’s newsroom for self-isolation tips and if you need to recover at home or go to the hospital.

Photo cutline: [L-R] Shayla Rhodes and Ciara Williamson serve as COVID-19 contract tracers for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County.

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