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Carroll County hiring contact tracers to support COVID-19 mitigation as Hogan begins lifting restrictions

From left, Barbara McDonald, Kelsey Green and Dani Grosholz are among Carroll County Health Department workers who have been tracking down anyone who might have come into close contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
From left, Barbara McDonald, Kelsey Green and Dani Grosholz are among Carroll County Health Department workers who have been tracking down anyone who might have come into close contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. (Courtesy Photo)

In support of Gov. Larry Hogan’s multi-phase plan for lifting restrictions on activities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Carroll County Health Department is launching new efforts to test for cases and trace down those persons’ close contacts.

As of March 14, the Carroll County Agriculture Center is being used as a drive-thru COVID-19 testing location, while the health department has also begun hiring contract tracers to help with further mitigation efforts.

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The department has been doing COVID-19 contact tracing since Carroll’s first case on March 13, but the hiring of new contact tracers is intended to help relieve health workers who have other duties as well.

“While we continued contact tracing at some level throughout our response, we are increasing our efforts as reopening starts because we know the risk of exposure will increase and we will need to identify people who will potentially be infectious and have them stay home,” said Maggie Kunz, a spokesperson and health planner for the department.

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Hogan announced Wednesday he would lift his stay-at-home order effective Friday at 5 p.m., replacing it with a “safer at home” recommendation.

“The governor’s plan relies heavily on four different things: hospital surge capacity, the supplies of [personal protective equipment], and testing and contact tracing,” county Health Officer Ed Singer said. “I see contact tracing and testing going hand in hand.”

These resources will fit in with the health department’s existing COVID-19 hotline, at 410-876-4848. When a person is identified as potentially symptomatic for COVID-19, they can get tested and, if found positive, asked to quarantine at home or receive the appropriate medical care, according to Singer.

Where contact tracers come in, Singer said, is in identifying those people who might have been in close contact with a person known to be sick with COVID-19, and in this case close contact is specifically defined.

“It’s very different than casual contact. Casual contact is you pass someone in the grocery store or are in the room at work briefly with someone; that’s not close contact,” he said. Close contact “is prolonged contact, within 6 feet, for over 15 minutes.”

Contact tracers will be making phone contact with people who test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to find out who their close contacts might be, and then reaching out to those people as well, according to Singer.

“The whole point of contact tracing is to identify the sick people, keep them separate from everyone, and identify people who may be potentially infected and quarantine them as well,” he said. Quarantine is for a 14-day period because, “It usually takes three to five days for someone, once they are infected, to become symptomatic, but it can be as long as 14 days.”

People can shed the novel coronavirus before developing symptoms, Singer added.

“It sounds really simple up to the point where you get someone who is sick has someone who is immuno-compromised in their home and they may not be able to isolate there. Or you might have somebody who is elderly — they might be sick and unable to get their own meals,” he said. “There is a lot of wrap-around stuff that has to happen with this to make sure people can self-isolate and self-quarantine, and we may have to do some work with social services and other agencies.”

Carroll County Health Department staff have been focused almost exclusively on coronavirus response since the pandemic began, with a few exceptions, Singer said, and that includes what testing and contact tracing efforts have been taking place. But as restrictions are lifted, health department workers will have their regular jobs to get back to.

That’s why the health department is looking to hire about 30 contact tracers from within the Carroll community, according to Singer.

“We don’t want our citizens in Carroll County being called by a call center, we want them called by the local health department,” he said. “We think it’s important to have at the local level.”

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Those interested can find the job description and instructions on how to apply online at https://tinyurl.com/ya5d72wr. No experience is required, but those who take advantage of one of the free online contact tracer courses offered by Johns Hopkins Hospital and other institutions might have an edge, according to Singer.

The department is conducting interviews and expects to bring people on board within the next two weeks, Kunz said.

The goal is to hire people and gradually replace the health department staff currently doing contract tracing with new hires, Singer said, so staff can get back to their other jobs.

But that does mean that the contract tracing jobs will be temporary, though Singer notes it’s not at all clear yet how long the need could continue. “I could see us doing this until we have a vaccine,” he said.

And just how long it will take to get to a vaccine, and what the health department will do in the interim, is something Singer thinks about a lot.

“We don’t know when a vaccine will be available. It might be six to nine months, it could be longer,” he said. “We are not doing antigen [diagnostic] testing yet, but that could be the next step. Once there is a vaccine we could be doing mass vaccination clinics.”

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