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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

In Face of COVID-19 Surge, Contact Tracing Has Become a DIY Task

a photo of staff members at a federally qualified health center in Lancaster, PA
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Employees at a federally qualified health center in Lancaster, PA watch the state's governor during a visit in July. Healthcare workers and public health employees have been overwhelmed by the current surge in cases of COVID-19.

Early on in the pandemic Gov. Mike DeWine sought assistance to conduct contact tracing in Ohio that could reduce transmission of COVID-19.

Massachusetts-based nonprofit Partners In Health, which has successfully conducted contact tracing in third world countries, has been working with the state health department to create a contact tracing infrastructure.

And while Partners In Health Ohio senior project lead Bram Wispelwey says the state met the goal for recruiting contact tracers, it’s not enough to handle the current surge.

He talked with WKSU's Sarah Taylor.

Q: The message we're getting from some local health Departments is they really can't keep up with the contact tracing and personally you know I heard of a case where someone was notified that they had tested positive on a Friday. They didn't get a call from the public health department for a week. That doesn't seem optimal to try to mitigate the spread, would you say?

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Bram Wispelwey is the Ohio senior project lead for Massachusetts-based Partners In Health. He spoke with us from Boston.

A: Yes, you know, and that's not unique to Ohio. Right now, many states, many localities are seeing these surge conditions and you have a situation where in a county like Cuyahoga you're seeing hundreds of cases a day, similar to what the entire state was seeing just a few weeks ago.

There's really no way for the existing force—contact tracing and case investigation force—to be able to tackle those kind of numbers, and so you know we're in this kind of what we call sort of surge mobilization and sort of re-directing existing efforts and really, focusing on the case investigation piece and trying to recruit really people themselves to do their own contact tracing, because there really just isn't the human power at this moment to do more than that. So yeah, that's been a struggle really across the United States at this moment.

Q: I imagine the effectiveness of that plummets—to have to ask someone to do their own contact tracing?

A: Exactly, and it's really that sort of situation where, what's the best we can do now? Any amount of work around it to be honest, is still valuable. There's been this message that, 'Hey, you know we're overwhelmed, so we're just going to stop everything.' But actually you know each contact traced, each person you know could be a break in the transmission. You know only a minority of people end up spreading widely to others. But you know, every time you can break one of those transmission cycles, you've saved lives down the line.

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Lauren Green

Q: So what is the message that you're giving to local health departments in Ohio right now?

A: The message we're giving is try to reach all the cases you can and do that case investigation and then you know utilize things like different technologies that are available to think about how to do some amount of contact tracing that doesn't take up a lot of time since we just don't have the number of people at this moment to deal with the cases that are out there.

Q: What kind of technologies would that be?

A: So they can be different things like there have been looking into different text messaging, you know and notifications, ways of notifying people that doesn't necessarily rely on a conversation or giving people a phone number that they can then proactively call and trying to reach the people who are most at risk of getting seriously ill and sort of doing some triage and prioritization around that.

Q: For people who are getting notifications that they've tested positive but aren't getting that interaction with the local public health department, what is your best advice for people?

A: CDC just put out new guidelines. The best thing to do is to monitor your symptoms and to quarantine as you're able. There are a number of different ways to reach out to people if you need help quarantining. You know we've been working on creating a more robust care resource coordination system in Franklin County so that people who need help to quarantine or isolate—which many, many people do as we've learned from our experience in Massachusetts—is that you know, to try to make that available to people who need it so that they can stay safe, keep their families safe as they wait out that period of quarantine.

Q: What do you mean? What kind of help do they need to do that, you mean a place to go or something else?

A: It could be a place to go, it could be just finding ways to get food right? So if you're the only one who can do grocery shopping in your household, right? That means that you wouldn't be able to to go out and get groceries. So like, is there a way to get food to the house? You know, thinking about support with things like childcare or getting medications, and then you know in some cases also a place to stay.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge in Ohio with trying to implement this type of contact tracing program that Partners In Health does?

A: Figuring out how to do messaging around contact tracing in Ohio--What it can do? What it can't do from a disease control perspective—has been a challenge, but I think you know that those waters I think the Ohio Department of Health has done a really good job of navigating really in the first seven months here.

Bram Wispelwey is senior project lead in Ohio for Partners In Health. He says the organization has been working mainly with the Ohio Department of Health and the Franklin County Health Department and relying on them to share information with other public health departments around the state.

In Franklin County, Wispelwey says another organization Resolve to Save Lives has been working to assist with the COVID-19 response. And a Columbus organization, Healthcare Collaborative of Greater Columbus, has been pioneering ways to respond to needs that can assist people to quarantine.

For more information about what to do if you've tested positive or suspect you've been exposed to COVID-19, contact Summit County Public Health at (330) 812-3705.