It wasn’t until months into the pandemic that Donna Willis Foster happened to read an article looking for contact tracers — staff of South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control responsible for gathering information about individuals who have had contact with patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.
She’d already worked at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, so she was used to working in a health care environment. After speaking with a recruiter, Foster, of Travelers Rest, participated in the necessary training and is now waiting to start her job as a contact tracer — something she’s excited to begin but also concerned about, given polarized opinions about the novel coronavirus the government’s response to it.
“It is getting into their business,” Foster said. However, “this is extremely important,” she added, describing the need to understand the behavior of the disease. “We want to isolate [COVID-19] and make sure everybody’s been safe.”
In the Upstate, there are about 200 case investigators, a type of contact tracer, DHEC spokesperson Laura Renwick said in an email. Those investigators are the ones who do the initial phone interview with a patient who tested positive for COVID-19 within 24-48 hours of that patient testing positive.
“Our hundreds of contact monitors — who follow up with close contacts identified during the case investigation — cover the state and don’t have a specific region, as close contacts may not reside in the same region as the individual who tested positive,” Renwick added.
Information about the patient is not shared with other contacts and is kept confidential. Providing information is also voluntary.
In non-pandemic times, DHEC has about 20 contact tracers who investigate various diseases. Now, DHEC has more than 600. That number includes, according to Renwick, contact tracers who hold the first interviews with COVID-19 patients as well as those who continue to speak with the patient during quarantine.
“We want to isolate [COVID-19] and make sure everybody’s been safe.” – Donna Willis Foster, contact tracer
Many contact tracers are being recruited by staffing firms, then trained on DHEC’s processes. A job advertisement on the website GlassDoor at the time of publication is looking for contact tracers in Greenville who can work from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., up to seven days a week. The advertised pay is $16.25 an hour.
“It’s not required for a contact tracer to have a public health background, although that is helpful,” Renwick said. “They need to be able to speak professionally and with cultural sensitivity, while maintaining strict confidentiality.”
However, right now, contact tracing may not be as effective due to a large number of new cases being reported daily.
“With cases continuing at that level daily, it’s severely hampering our ability to use contact tracing to control the spread of COVID-19. It is a significant challenge to interview more than 1,000 people daily to counsel them about prevention measures they should take and learn who they may have had close contact with. If each case had three contacts, that means attempting to contact 4,000 people daily,” DHEC’s epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said at a recent press conference.
Bell said that while contact tracing is a means to control disease spread, this is true for smaller cases. “When there is widespread community transmission, contact tracing is less effective in preventing spread. At that point, the work needed to combat this disease must take place at the population level, not the individual level,” she said.
Still, individual responsibility is key, according to Renwick. If each person acts in accordance with the recommendations by public health officials, then a decrease of the virus will happen sooner than later.
“It’s important to know that individual responsibility supports the contact tracing process. The more people who wear masks and avoid group gatherings, the fewer close contacts there will be,” Renwick said, urging community members to listen to DHEC recommendations.
You can find out more about contact tracing by visiting DHEC’s website: https://www.scdhec.gov.