The intriguing detective work of Covid-19 contact tracers contributed to the dramatic reduction of new virus cases in Marin from July, our worst month of the pandemic, to August, where we saw a flattening of the curve.
Contact tracers, public health professionals who follow the trail of Covid-19 from an infected person to their close contacts, will be just as essential as we forge ahead.
Some Marin contact tracers are volunteers, such as Jill Aggersbury, a retired nurse from Novato who began volunteering in May.
“Initially, we were very behind,” Aggersbury said. “We weren’t contacting the infected person until two weeks after testing. It defeated the purpose. Now state and county employees have joined us to help out.”
Today, there’s a 70-person team, including rapid responders, contact investigators and contact tracers. Their primary goal is to reduce the spread of the virus.
Rapid responders break the news to folks who test positive for Covid-19. With the county’s addition of new staff, they now alert infected people within two to three days.
Contact investigators then call to offer advice and resources. They also compile a list of people the infected individual has come into close contact with during the past two weeks. A close contact is defined as someone who has been within six feet of the infected person for at least 10 minutes.
From there, contact tracers track down everyone on the list provided by the investigator. On average, Aggersbury said they contact two to three additional people per case.
The conversations vary, depending upon the person’s situation. Aggersbury recently spoke with someone who just came home with a newborn and she had many concerns.
“Fortunately, we now have more contact tracers and fewer cases, allowing us to go more in-depth with each case,” Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis said.
Certain cases are extremely laborious. Contact investigator Eduardo Portela-Parra, of San Anselmo, a county employee, finds the most challenging cases in the Canal District, a higher density, low-income neighborhood in San Rafael where one apartment may house multiple families. He could be contacting 10 people in the same household.
Bilingual tracers can play an extremely important role since seventy one percent of Marin cases are in the Latinx community, a group which comprises only 16 percent of the county’s total population. That discrepancy is partly fueled by extremely high case rates in the Canal District, which has a large Latinx population. In August, NPR reported that nearly one third of Marin County’s cases were located in the Canal District.
“Some refuse to isolate or share information, because they’re worried about legal issues and want to continue to go to work,” Portela-Parra said.
Part sleuth, part therapist, Portela-Parra works to gain the confidence of the infected person in order to collect necessary data. In addition to empathy, he offers groceries, a letter for the employer and financial assistance to make up for lost wages as they isolate. If the person lives in a home with those in high-risk categories, arrangements can be made for a hotel room.
Portela-Parra encourages people to trust the contact tracers for their own benefit and the benefit of the community. The identity of the infected person remains confidential.
“We don’t want them to have any negative consequences in their life,” he said.
Some people are surprised to learn they were exposed to the coronavirus, while others have experienced symptoms, Aggersbury said. Those with symptoms are instructed to isolate for seven days.
If symptomless, she recommends a quarantine for 14 days from the last date of contact with the infected individual. Most people want to get tested right away, but they should simply stay home to help prevent spreading the disease. As we know, there’s no cure or vaccine yet.
“Right now, contact tracing is the most important tool we have,” Willis said. “We test to see who’s positive, then we isolate and quarantine.”
While Trump touts a Covid-19 vaccine before the end of the year, Willis says we shouldn’t count on one anytime soon, as it will be months before a vaccine is developed. Even then, we won’t immediately know the level of protection it will offer.
“It won’t negate the need for contact tracing,” Willis said.
In the meantime, the team continues their efforts to keep flattening the curve and move us out of lockdown. Though Aggersbury and Poretela-Para admit the job can be difficult, they say their work is rewarding. Heroes, indeed.