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Health & Science

Cuyahoga County Contact Tracers Race Against the Clock

diagram showing coronavirus spread among people
Bob Boz
Contact tracing has been an important tool for public health officials to contain COVID-19 spread since the beginning of the pandemic, but the delta variant is more contagious, which can make it a race against the clock to notify people who have been exposed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a person sick with COVID-19 would spread the virus to approximately 1 to 3 people, but the fast-spreading delta variant has changed the equation.

The delta variant causes people to have a higher viral load, which makes the virus more contagious. Now, about 5to 8 people are likely to become infected from one sick person.

The faster spread makes it harder for public health officials to trace, said Jana Rush, director of Epidemiology, Surveillance & Informatics at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

“It’s like a race against the clock to try to really implement these (contact tracing) measures,” she said.

Rush said it's able to spread even faster because there are people in the population who are still unvaccinated.

“We’re using the same methods we used last year. I think the transmission of the virus is what our greatest challenge is right now,” she said.

Rush said people are also getting out more than they were at the beginning of the pandemic, which can also lead to more contacts.

Mitigation efforts are not as strict as they were back in 2020 when we had the closures and everyone mandated to wear a mask inside of closed spaces, avoiding large groups,” she said.

Contact tracing has been an important tool for public health officials to contain COVID-19 spread since the beginning of the pandemic. It allows health officials to trace the spread of the virus and quarantine those who have been infected or in contact with COVID-19.

Ohio had 5,395 cases Thursday, according to the Ohio Department of Health (ODH). That’s noteworthy, as the last time new cases exceeded 5,000 cases per day in Ohio was in late January, when fewer people were vaccinated.

More than 98 percent of people hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to ODH data.

With the new surge of cases, Rush said contact tracing is ramping back up.

“I think we’re in a much stronger position and that we’ve learned a lot from 2020 about contact tracing,” she said. “Contact tracing was not as robust in the very beginning as we probably have heard and saw through the headlines at that time.” 

Improvements in testing availability have made contact tracing easier.

“Testing is our main source of being able to conduct contact tracing in the most robust fashion,” she said. “As people develop symptoms, we would like them to get tested as quickly as possible so that we can isolate the people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 and then begin the contact tracing for anyone that they may have been in contact with before their illness or symptoms began.”

Rush said people are more likely to be open about their contacts because some of the stigma is gone.

“A lot of people are taking it upon themselves to let people know that they’re infected,” she said. “That’s encouraging, to know that people are more open now to share information.”

But it isn’t all bad for contact tracers like Rush.

At this point in the pandemic, they have the staff and the preparation to easily respond to outbreaks.

Contact tracing is still incredibly important in congregate living facilities, where people live in close contact with one another and COVID-19 can spread quickly.

“It’s absolutely important that we conduct contact tracing in a concentrated way when we’re dealing with nursing homes, long-term care facilities, group homes, where we’re dealing with really vulnerable populations who have comorbidities that will make them predisposed to even more severe outcomes,” Rush said.

She said they work quickly to isolate and quarantine in those settings. As a preventative measure, the county board of health also works with them on cleaning and safety practices to control spread.

Rush said contact tracing will continue through the near future, but eventually we will reach herd immunity. Rush hopes that comes through more people getting vaccinated, but she said people getting infected will also get us to herd immunity as well.

When that happens, Rush said COVID-19 will become something that circulates normally throughout the population, like any other virus, and contact tracing will no longer be necessary.   
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