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Minnesota to roll out texting system for COVID-19 contact tracing

To encourage people to answer their calls, contact tracers will now text first.

MINNESOTA, USA — Contact tracers for the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) have stayed busy lately, especially with COVID-19 cases increasing to record-breaking levels.

These tracers spend most of their days making phone calls, to people who either have COVID-19 or may have been closely exposed to the virus. 

But not everybody's answering.

"If you're like most people, like me, you won't answer the call if you don't recognize the number," said Chris Elvrum, a deputy incident manager for COVID-19 response at MDH. "Sometimes, we'll have to call two, three, four, five times, before we can get them to answer."

To make sure people answer on the first call, MDH announced Friday that it will roll out a new texting program on Nov. 16, following the lead of many other states. 

If you're COVID-19 positive or were exposed to someone who tested positive, you may receive a text message with this exact wording:

Answer the Call: State and local public health department staff will be calling you with important information about your health. Please answer the call from xxx-xxx-xxxx. This is an automated text message, please do not reply. 

The phone number given in the text message will depend on where you live in Minnesota. Once you've received the text, you can expect your phone to ring a few minutes later.

"The more opportunity we have to get them to answer on that first call," Elvrum said, "the better off."

During the interview process with a contact tracer, you'll discuss any symptoms, who you've been in contact with, and how you can prevent spreading COVID-19 to others. 

An MDH contact tracer will not ask you to pay them, nor will the tracer ask you for any personal financial information.

It's something to watch out for, as fraudsters look to take advantage of COVID-19 all over the country.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of scams around a lot of components to the response to COVID," said Matt Fisher, a health law expert based in Massachusetts. "Some of the big red flags: A request for a financial account number, Social Security, or any other specific personal information, that feels like it's going beyond the bounds of what's needed."

Fisher also warned not to click any links through text or email. A real contact tracer would never send such a link.

Keep in mind, the texts you receive from MDH will follow that exact wording, asking you to "Answer the Call." The goal is to reach more people who need to self-isolate, and hopefully stop the spread of the virus.

"And it also gives an opportunity, if someone needs some assistance to isolate," Elvrum said, "then that can be the kicking off point."