Any day now, you could be getting a call from a contact tracer with the Louisiana Department of Health. These are the people hired to track the transmission of the coronavirus when a new case pops up.
To understand what you should expect from that phone call, New Orleans Public Radio spoke with Dr. Joseph Kanter, the assistant state health officer.
Rosemary Westwood: Dr. Kanter, thanks for being here. Can you first just update us on how many people have been hired to do this job?
Dr. Joseph Kanter: We have about 350 hired by the state right now. As the governor has mentioned, you know, we'll go up to as many as we need to get the job done. We kind of anticipate that number being in the ballpark of 700. That's based on some calculations that Massachusetts put out.
But we'll see how it goes. I'll tell you, during normal times, not COVID, we only have about 35 people in the Office of Public Health that do this type of work. So it's a big expansion of the workforce.
How will contact tracers introduce themselves — how will we know to trust who’s calling?
A few ways. The caller ID will say, either “Office of Public Health” or “Contact Tracer.” When they pick up, the caller will immediately identify themselves as working on behalf of the Louisiana Department of Health, and as a contact tracer for the COVID outbreak.
Now, folks should know the nature of the questions that are going to be asked, and what will not be asked. People here are not interested in information like somebody's Social Security number, like their bank account. That would never be appropriate to be asked, nor should anybody give that information.
Really, the information and the questions that will be asked are the nature of where somebody was and who they interacted with, going back 48 hours prior to either symptoms developing, or for folks who tested positive without symptoms, that point in time that they tested.
And what about people who are being called because they were in contact with someone else who tested positive?
Those folks get asked less questions. They typically get told that they had a positive exposure. Now, one of the facets of contact tracing, just embedded in this type of work, is confidentiality and protection of individual privacy.
So, for example, if I were to be a positive case and have a conversation with the contact tracer today, they would receive a list of contacts from me. Now, when those contacts got reached by the contact tracers, they would never release my identity. They would only tell people that they've learned that that person was exposed to somebody who tested positive for COVID. And it's recommended that they look out for symptoms and quarantine, usually for two weeks from the point of exposure.
But they won't be told the name of the individual who gave them as a contact. So there's a lot of care given to protect patient privacy and people's anonymity in this process.
So the information won’t be shared with others, but what does happen to the information collected by contact tracers?
It goes into a system that they use to divvy up this type of work. It gets kept for a relatively short period of time. And then eventually it gets destroyed or erased from the server. So it's not kept in a typical fashion. It's not fed into another type of database.
It's not used for any other type of purpose other than letting people know who might be exposed to COVID that they were exposed and they should quarantine so that they don't put anybody else at risk.
Participation in contact tracing and self-isolation is voluntary, so how much does that participation matter, and how critical is it to the effort to control COVID?
It matters a great deal. If I became positive with COVID — and because we know a lot about asymptomatic infection, I can be positive right now and not know it — the last thing I would want to do is put somebody else's life in jeopardy.
I interact with people who were 65 years old. I'm sure I interact without knowing it with people who have underlying health conditions, folks who are at a real vulnerability should they be exposed and contract COVID. That's why contact tracing is so important.
It's the individual saying, I'm gonna look out for those who I might have been in contact with, and make sure that they know to protect themselves, and protect all the people that they might come in contact with.
It is voluntary, you know, the contact tracers and the Department of Health, the state, they can't force anyone to participate in this, but it really is the neighborly and the human thing to do, because I mean, God forbid, would anybody want on their shoulders knowledge that they expose somebody else to curve it and that person got really sick?
Update: A reader asked whether all new positive cases will get a call from a contact tracer. Here's what the department of health said: "All positive cases are uploaded into Salesforce (the company running contact tracing) for outreach from our contact tracing team. We are currently reaching out to all cases that we have complete and accurate contact information for within 24 hours of that information being uploaded into our system."