ST PAUL, Minn. — Once a case of COVID-19 is identified, the race is on to determine where that person got the virus and who they came in contact with.
That detective work is done by a team of "contact tracers."
Right now, the Minnesota Dept. of Health has about 150 tracers, but they need many more. They said they are focused on hiring at least another 1,000 in the next month or so, but depending on how the virus progresses, they may need 4,000.
Every person who tests positive for COVID-19 gets a phone call from one of the department's investigators.
"The case investigation is kind of square one. That is where we start," said Cody Schardin, lead case investigator at the health department.
They work on site at the health department, using office space and technology that meets HIPPA standards. They call a person who tests positive and ask them questions. They start by asking about symptoms, identifying the date those symptoms started. The "infectious period" starts two days before the onset of symptoms.
They also determine whether a person has had contact with a known COVID-19 case, traveled, or visited a healthcare facility since they became infectious.
Then, comes the contact tracing.
"That's when we would start asking them about their contacts they had while they were ill," Schardin said.
They start with the people you live and work with.
But then it can get complicated. The CDC defines "close contact" with another person, as it pertains to COVID-19, as within six feet for at least 15 minutes.
"But every situation is very unique," said Schardin. "Whether it was repeated exposure, were you just saying "hi" when you were talking to this person if you happened to be out on a walk? How close were you? And how long were you with that person?"
Any contacts of a person with COVID-19 will be contacted and asked to quarantine for 14 days.
The investigators get help from translators, when needed. The department has previously said tracing the outbreak in the Worthington area was challenging, because the employees at the JBS pork plant spoke 58 different languages.
Tracing work is critical in the department's efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
"[We're] identifying someone who may not be aware that a person they have had contact with is confirmed to have had COVID-19," Schardin said. "The sooner we can identify them, the better. We don't want them out in public, because it is possible to spread COVID-19 before somebody is experiencing symptoms."
The department says they are adding more contact tracers every week. They said they are getting help with hiring by partnering with local public health agencies, and the University of Minnesota to hire public health students.
The MDH uses criteria from the CDC when hiring contact tracers. They said they are working on a process for hiring tracers beyond their public health partners. For the time being, they encourage anyone interested to check their jobs website and sign up for alerts from human resources. You can do that here.
Interested parties can also sign up with the Minnesota Medical Reserve Corps.
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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.