Although the rapid spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey — with close to 3,000 cases reported as of March 23 — arguably means the state has moved beyond attempting to contain the disease toward trying to mitigate its spread via aggressive measures that encourage self-quarantine and social distancing, municipal health departments are still applying the concepts of contact tracing to stem the tide of infections in their local communities.
Contract tracing is a method used in infectious disease to attempt to identify any individuals an infected person has been in contact with prior to being diagnosed. The more people identified, located and counseled on what to do if they might have been exposed to someone with a contagious disease (including getting screened or tested, seeking medical attention, monitoring symptoms, and self-isolating or self-quarantining if needed), the more effective health departments can be at decreasing the disease’s spread throughout the community.
For health departments, this involves some “boots-on-the-ground” detective work to locate individuals who might be at risk, and dogged follow-up to ensure those people are taking the proper precautions.
In Monday’s White House press briefing, virus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx emphasized the importance of contact tracing, and said that obtaining specific data from individual towns and municipalities — especially those in areas with larger outbreaks like the New York metropolitan region — would be helpful in the nation’s fight against the spread of the virus.
As of March 23, 2020, Maplewood had reported 9 known cases of coronavirus and South Orange has reported 5 cases. (Read about one South Orange resident who publicly shared the details of his story.)
Those numbers are still currently low enough on the local level to make contact tracing a viable and useful process.
Village Green asked Maplewood Health Officer Candice Davenport how she and her team apply contact tracing in managing the pandemic in the community. Here is her response:
This process applies to all communicable and infectious diseases that are reportable to the local health department. It is our job to conduct the contact tracing and investigate how the person has been infected.
We receive notification of a positive lab result via the Communicable Disease Reporting System (CDRS). We are in contact with the health care provider to get a case history of symptoms and potential risk factors and to check that the healthcare provider has reached out to the patient to inform them of the test result before we contact the patient.
We then contact the patient and answer any questions about the infection and how to reduce the spread of the disease. If this is a communicable or infectious disease we ask them who they were with the day they started having symptoms and who they have been in contact with while they have been sick and potentially able to spread it to others. We also ask them who they were with prior to illness because they may have been infectious before then depending on the disease and the incubation period.
We then notify the contacts if they were in our jurisdiction and or contact the local health department where the contact resides so that they can continue the follow up. At each point we are providing education and resources for information and most importantly how to prevent the spread to others.
In the case of coronavirus, we have been providing thorough guidance and education to the patient and their contacts about what is involved in self isolation, self monitoring and quarantining if they have been a close or household contact of a case. These are all crucial practices that will keep others from getting sick with coronavirus so we take this very seriously.
If they are symptomatic, we advise people to get screened and tested by their healthcare provider or go to an urgent care center where they have COVID-19 testing kits available.