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Move over Nancy Drew, step aside Sherlock and pipe down Poirot – there’s a new breed of detective in town and they’re helping curb the spread of COVID-19 in Australia right now.
Called contact tracers, these disease detectives are looking at who’s at risk of catching COVID-19, then finding and contacting them to self-isolate. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, contact tracers play a vital role in keeping the Australian infection rate relatively low. But what do they do, exactly?
We reached out to nib partner Hunter Medical Research Institute, to ask one of the Hunter New England Local Health District Contact Tracers, Rachel Latta, our biggest questions.
Rachel: Contact tracing means identifying people who have been in close contact with a person who is infectious.
If we’re talking to an infectious person who has potentially exposed 10 people, for example, we need to identify those 10 people and ask them to stay at home. If, say, two of those 10 people go on to develop the disease, and they are in isolation and so have not exposed anyone else, the disease stops there. There is no further spread.
That’s why contact tracing is one of the most important tasks during an infectious disease pandemic.
Rachel: A contact tracer interviews individuals who have COVID-19, talks to them about what symptoms they have, when the symptoms started, and what they might expect. We work with them to develop a plan if they become more unwell, and identify who they have been in contact with whilst they have been infectious.
The contact tracer then calls those contacts who have spent a significant period of time with the infectious person, informs them about the disease and symptoms to look out for, and the importance of being tested for COVID-19 if symptoms develop.
We then ask them to remain in home isolation for 14 days since their last contact with the infectious person, as it can take up to 14 days to develop symptoms.
Rachel: We start the day with a brief overview of the number of new cases in our local health district and within the state. We interview any new local cases, identify their contacts, and then interview those contacts. All of this is done from an office space and interviews are done over the phone.
While close contacts are self-isolating in their home for 14 days, our team continues to phone or text them to ensure that they are well and able to remain safely isolated in their home. At times there could be hundreds of close contacts that a local health district team are following up daily.
So much of our success comes down to our ability to get that initial conversation right. If someone is reluctant to cooperate, we need to be able to understand their concerns and adequately address their fear or misunderstandings about the virus.
At times we do interviews with the assistance of an interpreter service, as we want to communicate with people in the language they’re most comfortable speaking. We need to be completely clear that they understand the importance of what we’re asking them to do.
One of the things we want to get across is that in the Australian health system testing is free, as often that’s not the case in the country where they were born.
Rachel: I’m hoping a vaccine changes things, but for now, we need to go with the assumption that the virus is always active in the community.
The main misconception is that children, teenagers, and young adults do not get that sick from this disease. Some of these people can become extremely unwell and require hospitalisation. The other thing is that if people in this age group become infectious they often have a large number of close contacts who could potentially develop the disease.
The main misconception is that children, teenagers and young adults do not get that sick from this disease
Rachel: As a communicable disease clinical nurse consultant, my usual job includes infectious disease surveillance and reducing the spread of diseases in our community such as whooping cough, measles and meningococcal disease, to name just a few. So my work as a contact tracer will continue.
It will be important for our health teams to debrief and reflect on the amazing work that has been done and ensure we are even more prepared if another pandemic occurs – we hope that this will never happen, but history tells us a different story.
Rachel: Physical distancing! If we’re not near people, we’re not going to give them COVID-19. Making sure there’s a gap of at least 1.5 metres between you and them.
And if you’re sick, it’s vital to go and get tested and stay away from other people.
The majority of people have mild symptoms. When we tell people they have COVID-19, so many of them say ‘You’re kidding me - I’m feeling a bit under the weather, but nothing bad.’
But if they pass that virus on to someone else, that other person could end up in intensive care.
As part of our COVID-19 member and community response package, nib is supporting Hunter Medical Research Institute to deliver the ‘Fast Facts’ project – an initiative arming health officials more quickly and effectively with up-to-date evidence to better inform the public health response to COVID-19. For more information on the partnership and to find out what else we’re doing to support our community head to the nib media centre.
For more ways to keep safe and healthy during COVID-19, check out our dedicated series including wellbeing tips, at-home workouts and health advice.