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Phone Tag

COVID contact tracing efforts hampered by lack of positive respondees

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You may want to check twice before ignoring that call from a mysterious number.

The Pima County Health Department is calling those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who have potentially been exposed to someone with the virus, reaching out to possible contacts in a process known as contact tracing.

The department's contact tracing teams call from two different numbers: (833) 771-XXXX or (520) 724-XXXX. The last four digits will vary between callers.

The health department has 18 case investors calling those who test positive and 70 contract tracers reaching out to those listed as having in-person contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. They assess symptoms, give quarantine instructions and provide guidance on what to do if one does experience symptoms.

The department won't release the name of the positive tester—so if you get the call from a contact tracer, you'll only know who may have exposed you to the virus if that person tells you.

The department encourages those who test positive to inform their recent contacts on their own, and according to Matt Christenberry, an epidemiologist at the Pima County Health Department and program manager overseeing contact tracing in the county, those who are aware they've been exposed "may be more willing to pick up the phone" when a contact tracer attempts to reach them.

In July, the department announced a $10 million contract with Maximus Health Services, Inc. to increase contact tracing in the area. The outside firm provides case investigation and contact tracing services for the county.

But despite a renewed focus on tracking down those who may have been exposed to coronavirus, one of the key COVID-19 progress metrics the health department tracks hasn't been met for at least five weeks, according to Christenberry.

Pima County hasn't met the criteria for timely case investigation, which tracks the percentage of those who tested positive for coronavirus who were interviewed within 48 hours of the time the case was reported.

"For the timely case investigation metric, we look at: Once public health gets notified a person tests positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, how quickly are we able to reach out to them and complete an interview with them? We use that 48 hours as that cut off point to say how successful we are," Christenberry said.

In order to meet the criteria for timely case investigation, at least 80% of those who tested positive must be reached within 48 hours for an initial interview with the health department.

Christenberry says the "long-term" goal is to meet criteria by interviewing 80% of positive cases within 48 hours, but the "short-term" goal is to at least be considered making progress, which requires 65% to be interviewed in the same timeframe.

However, the percentage of those who are actually reached within the timeframe depends on whether or not people who tested positive answer their phone. According to Christenberry, about 39% of those the health department called didn't answer the phone after multiple attempts from Sept. 20-Oct. 3.

While it's important to receive accurate information after a coronavirus diagnosis, the effectiveness of contract tracing depends on if those who test positively inform their potential contacts. If those who were potentially exposed to COVID-19 aren't aware, they could unintentionally expose others.

"If you're never aware you're exposed, and then all of a sudden you develop symptoms, you may not know what's going on, or why you're having the symptoms. But also, somebody may have been asymptomatic," Christenberry said. "We can help you, but also help your family by making sure they have the proper resources, connecting them to testing."

Case investigators and contact tracers will leave a voicemail with a callback number. If they can't reach someone through phone, text message or email, they may show up at the person's residence to complete a health assessment from a safe physical distance.

"If you test positive for COVID-19, we're going to provide guidance to make sure you understand the recommendations for public health about staying home, but mostly to see how you're doing," Christenberry said. "We're also going to assess if there're any barriers or any implications why they can't stay home. Our staff will actually review that with them, and then if we need to, we'll follow up with specific guidance."

The health department recommends all potential contacts get tested for COVID-19, but at the very least quarantine for 14 days.

"We encourage everybody to get tested for COVID-19 if you've been exposed, but not everybody chooses to do that," Christenberry said. "We usually don't have too many issues, people understand that it's for the greater good, and they're trying to protect themselves and their family."

For more information on contact tracing in Pima County, visit www.pima.gov/stopthespread.

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