Coronavirus testing // MDH 2

Public health employees in Minnesota’s counties have stepped up in recent months to tackle COVID-19 contact tracing.

A global pandemic was always coming, it was just a matter of “when,” not “if,” said Carver County Director of Public Health Richard Scott.

“Those of us in the field knew it was inevitable,” he said.

A pandemic hitting in 2020? No one foresaw that, Scott said.

But that doesn’t mean public health officials weren’t prepared for something of the novel coronavirus magnitude. Now that COVID-19 has arrived and is spreading through communities, public health officials in Carver and Scott counties — and across the state — are using the time-tested practice of contact tracing to help slow its spread.

“They’re probably one of the most effective tools we currently have to control the spread of the coronavirus,” Scott said of contact tracing, which is the practice of tracking down those who may have been exposed to an infected person.

Contact tracing has been used for centuries for infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis, he said, and now it’s being used daily to determine which area residents may have been exposed to COVID-19.

How it works

When COVID-19 started to pick up speed in Minnesota earlier this year, the state health department found itself overwhelmed with case loads as it began contact tracing, so it turned to the counties to help, said Scott County Public Health Director Lisa Brodsky.

When someone receives a positive test for COVID-19, the lab results are sent to the Minnesota Department of Health. Those results get loaded into a database, and each time a local resident tests positive, the county health department is notified. Scott County began case investigations May 10.

It’s then up to the county health departments to get in touch with the infected individual. They’ll usually call them by phone and first ensure they’re aware of the positive test result, Brodsky said. The contact tracers, which in Scott County include 24 trained public health employees and volunteers (even some volunteers from St. Catherine University), emphasize the importance of staying in isolation and away from others in their home.

Next, they try to determine who they’ve been in contact with.

“We go back two days prior of (the individual) having symptoms and try to identify who they’ve been in touch with,” Brodsky said. She added that could include any restaurants or bars they’ve frequented and their employer. Contact tracers don’t try to track down whoever an infected person may have come into contact with at a grocery store, for example, Brodsky said, because the risk for an environment like that is so low.

“If someone went to a bar and was there for a couple hours, that’s a much higher risk,” she said.

The contact tracer instructs the infected individual to find their contacts and inform them that they should be quarantining themselves for about 14 days after the exposure.

“Some of these contact investigations are quick, sometimes they take up to two hours,” Brodsky said.

As of July 13, Scott County had 899 positive coronavirus cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health and Carver County had 500. Generally, contact tracers are able to make contact with patients within a day of their results entering the state database, Brodsky said.

Of course, some of those contact investigations are never completed because of disconnected phone lines or someone not returning calls, Brodsky said. But generally, people have been highly receptive, she said.

Carver County has bumped up the number of workers assisting with contact tracing. Additional public health staff members have been assigned to track cases and new volunteers have been trained, including some from the Medical Reserve Corps, Scott said.

Beyond the calls

While county health departments are helping slow the spread and measuring prevention through contact tracing, they’re also providing services and supplies to residents who may be in need. About 10% of the infected people Scott County has made contact with need some sort of assistance — whether that’s food, cleaning supplies or even a thermometer. Scott County has partnered with area food banks and grocery stores to ensure those who are running low on food, but can’t afford it due to being out of work or being unable to leave their home for quarantining reasons, are able to eat — no matter what time of day it is, Brodsky said.

In Carver County, many residents are self-sufficient, Scott said — one of the benefits of a relatively affluent community. But there’s still a significant portion of the population that struggles, he said. The county has boots on the ground and in some areas has gone door-to-door to provide information, masks and food.

Both Brodsky and Scott said seeing the community pull together for their neighbors has been one positive outcome from the global pandemic.

Trends

In recent days, Scott County has seen an uptick in positive cases for those ages 0-17, representing 8% of positive cases, Brodsky said. The largest age group of positive cases in Scott County is those ages 18-34, representing 35% of positive cases, she said. Some of the uptick can be attributed to exposures at nail salons, restaurants, bars and even workplaces.

“In our case investigation, some folks are carpooling together and that’s how they got their exposure,” she said.

There have been clusters of outbreaks at apartment buildings where young children play together, and even at graduation parties, she said.

Bars and restaurants that are not practicing physical distancing, limiting capacity and changing up seating arrangements have been a trouble area in Carver County, too, Scott said, adding the county has been able to curtail problem areas in a robust way.

Masks

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth face masks as a simple barrier to help stop the spread of COVID-19, particularly in instances where social distancing is difficult to maintain. The recommendation is based on what the CDC knows about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another, so face masks can help stop respiratory droplets from spreading into the air when people cough, sneeze, talk or raise their voices.

Contrary to some concerns of the public, many health experts have maintained there’s no scientific evidence that wearing a mask can cause negative side effects like carbon dioxide poisoning.

“For the most part, I’ve been very pleased with the amount of people wearing masks,” Brodsky said, adding she does believe it would be helpful if Gov. Tim Walz would create a statewide mask mandate.”If we don’t get ahead of this, what’s going to happen during flu season?” she said, of overwhelming hospitals.

Scott said public health employees work at an interesting convergence of science and human behavior. Masks are strongly encouraged, he said, especially since people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and spread the virus to others.

“Sometimes policies have to be made for the greater good,” he said. “Your behavior is going to affect me, it’s not just about you.”

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Rachel Minske is a regional editor and digital content coordinator at Southwest News Media. She's passionate about in-depth reporting and digital audiences. She's a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and enjoys exploring Minnesota.

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