Local health officials search for those potentially impacted by COVID-19 to help prevent transmission
Ryan Peerboom — Enterprise Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2020
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Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

Park County Health Officer Dr. Laurel Desnick stands outside the City/County Complex, inside which the Park County Health Department is located.

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When a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, medical professionals trade their stethoscopes for a deerstalker hat and turn into detectives to trace the virus back to its source and notify those that have been potentially impacted by it. 

This process, called contact tracing, is vital to slowing the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.

“The whole goal of contact tracing is to quickly identify people who have been exposed and are at risk to develop the illness and stop the transmission with that person,” Park County Health Officer Laurel Desnick said. 

When contact tracing, health officials aim to identify anyone who recently spent more than 10 minutes within 6 feet of the infected person, Desnick said. If that person is showing symptoms of COVID-19, they will be tested for the virus. If they do not show symptoms, they will still be asked to go into isolation for 14 days.

“You would try as hard as possible to stay home, stay away from other people, and you would check your own symptoms a couple times a day,” Desnick said. 

Isolation can be done at home if the contact can safely remain distanced from family members. Desnick said they have also found alternative places for contacts to isolate.

Health officials will also try to identify any person that was in contact with an infected person within 48 hours of when they first started to show symptoms, Desnick added. 

Ideally, the source of the patient’s virus can be found through contact tracing.

“You trace it back and try to figure out where it came from, and you trace it forward to stop the transmission from going any further.”

Park County Public Health Nurse Jaunita Bueter is trained in contact tracing and has been conducting patient interviews along with Desnick to locate potential contacts. 

Bueter said the Park County Health Department has been thorough with its contact tracing.

“Every positive case (COVID-19) has been thoroughly investigated,” Bueter said in an email Thursday. “A Health Department nurse investigator interviewed each person testing positive and each person identified as a close contact to the person testing positive. Numerous subsequent tests and quarantines were arranged in March and April.”  

Proper social distancing can reduce the number of people who come into contact with a COVID patient, Bueter added.

“If community members avoid activities that would make them someone’s close contact, they can avoid a 14-day quarantine that would restrict them to their house or property,” she said.

Overall, Bueter said contact tracing has been instrumental in keeping the total number of cases in Park County low.

Park County has reported only eight COVID cases, none of which are still active.

“We have had no positive tests in the month of May,” Bueter said. “The people who tested positive are no longer contagious. All of their known close contacts have completed the recommended quarantine requirements and are asymptomatic.”

Park County has been testing approximately 20 people per day in May, according to Bueter.

Desnick said the health department has another public health nurse training in contact tracing, but they have more people on standby if needed.

“We have a backup group of licensed nurses and medical professionals that are available if we need to expand our team,” she said. 

Contact tracing is necessary during a pandemic, but health officials are used to doing it to track other communicable diseases as well, according to Desnick.

“Contact tracing is not new to the Health Department because there are other communicable diseases such as pertussis, which is whooping cough, and there are some STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) that we trace, and there are some foodborne illnesses that we also trace,” she said.

 Trust is a major factor in determining how successful and thorough contact tracing can be, Bueter said. 

“Contact tracing of any disease, especially (COVID-19), is dependent upon trust between the person testing positive and the contact tracer,” she said. 

It also relies on the infected person’s recollection of recent events, Bueter added. 

“The biggest difficulty when completing contact tracing is if the person who tested positive cannot remember who they had close contacts with,” she said. “This inability to identify potentially exposed individuals may inadvertently allow further spread of (COVID-19).”

Desnick reiterated the importance of taking precautions to avoid coming into contact with the virus.

“If you don’t want to be a contact, then we know how to prevent that,” she said. “Keep your distance (and) wear a face covering. If you have to be close to someone, keep it as limited as possible.”