By Jennifer McCracken, Health Director

Catawba County, NC – With the advent of caller ID and smartphones, screening and avoiding calls from people we don’t want to talk to – telemarketers and scammers, for example – is a lot easier than it used to be.

However, in the new era of contact tracing for COVID-19, we are asking folks to answer the call.

You could be called because your test was positive or because someone who tested positive said you’d been close to them and could be at risk. Either way, the information you share with contact tracers could be invaluable in keeping the people around you healthy and slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Close contacts can be someone in the household, workplace or community who have been within 6 feet of the affected individual for 15 or more minutes.

For the most part, people have been responsive to our contact tracing efforts; however, we have had some instances where people have not taken or returned our calls or have not been forthcoming with information about their close contacts. Some people who test positive for COVID may be reluctant to provide information about close contacts because they feel bad about the situation or are worried about what might happen next.

When a person tests positive, contact tracers reach out to the positive individual. We ask them questions to try and determine how they might have contracted COVID-19, as well as who might have been close contacts to them starting 48 hours prior to symptom development. We try to obtain those contacts’ names, phone numbers, email addresses and other information that will help us locate those individuals. We then reach out to those individuals to advise them on measures to prevent further spread, which can include monitoring for development of symptoms, testing advice, and information on quarantine and other measures. If we do not reach them directly, we leave a message asking them to call us back.

If you were to test positive, we understand you may want to be the one to tell your loved ones and we encourage that. However, we still need to reach out to your close contacts to determine their level of risk and their potential exposure to others.

Contact tracing is not about pointing fingers or casting blame, because in many (if not most) cases, COVID-19 is spreading before someone even knows they have it. It’s about helping identify people close to you who may become sick so they can take appropriate measures to protect their health and prevent further spread. That’s why we cannot stress enough how important it is to respond when you are contacted. By sharing close contacts, we are able to give valuable guidance and support to your family, friends and loved ones.

A few weeks ago, we shared a case study on a family gathering that ended up spreading COVID-19 to more than 40 individuals. In that case, our contact tracers began speaking with the first few positive individuals and quickly learned that there were potentially multiple cases from that one event. When we followed up with those additional cases, we discovered that there had been additional spread to neighbors, friends and workplaces.

Our contact tracing for this situation was successful because people willingly provided information that helped us identify close contacts. Their cooperation was extremely valuable, and we were able to let their friends and loved ones know about their potential exposure and educate them on quarantine measures, testing, and next steps to help protect their health and the health of others.

How do you know if you’re getting a call from a real contact tracer and not a scam?
We will usually ask:
• For your name and address.
• For your date of birth.
• For your whereabouts on certain dates, errands you ran, stores or businesses you visited, people you have come into contact with, your workplace, etc.
· Questions about your health and whether you’ve experienced any symptoms.
Our contact tracers will never:
• Ask for your Medicare, Medicaid or insurance policy number.
• Ask for your immigration status.
• Ask for your Social Security number.
• Ask for a financial account number or request payment.
• Tell you who among your contacts has tested positive for COVID-19.
• Threaten you.
• Ask you to fill out an online application to be a contact tracer, too.

If you are unsure if a call is legitimate, call Catawba County Public Health directly to verify. We can be reached on our COVID-19 hotline at (828) 465-9595.