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Contact tracing: A race to connect the dots, stop the spread of COVID-19 in RI

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gathering information from everyone who had direct contact with a COVID-19 patient can help break the chain of infection, but missing one link could have the opposite effect.

Julian Drix was working in a R.I. Department of Health asthma program before he was drafted to join the state’s team of about 200 contact tracers — made up mostly of Health Department employees, along with a supplement of R.I. National Guard members.

The calls to the infected and their direct contacts can be emotional.

“Calls when you hear there’s been a death. Sometimes people are hospitalized in the ICU, intubated and you’re talking to a family member,” Drix said. “Other times, your telling someone for the first time about their test results.”

Step one: the interview.

“We talk to [patients] on the phone for about 20 minutes,” Drix said. “We ask for everyone they came in face-to-face contact that lasted for at least 15 minutes two days before they showed their first symptom.”

One patient can point in multiple directions and lead to dozens of additional phone calls.

That was especially true at the beginning of the crisis, before the stay-at-home order was in place and when large functions such as sporting events were still allowed.

“We had much more large events, before the season shut down big sport events,” Drix said. “People who attended or worked at big events at the Convention Center. So, at some point it becomes impossible to trace everything.”

Tracking down contacts is no doubt easier when an individual has obeyed the rules to avoid large gatherings and written down who they came into direct contact with during a given time frame.

The state’s new Crush Covid RI app and its ability to gather and share data is also expected to boost the efficiency of contact tracing, according to state officials.

But the trail will still be complicated by positive cases from crowded settings in homes and businesses.

“Sometimes you have clusters with housing,” Drix said. “Then, they interact with workplace clusters and all the people who have to be in the workplace.”

There are dead ends.

“Phones run out of minutes. They change their numbers,” Drix said.

Others are leery about sharing information, or just want someone to talk with about how the virus might impact them.

“They don’t want to talk to us. Sometimes they worry about identity theft,” Drix said. “We’re not counselors, but there is that human connection of just listening to people, hearing what they’re going through, and offering support and empathy as much as possible.”

Drix said if the first wave of contact tracers does not reach someone named by a patient, RIDOH makes additional efforts to get through to them. The contact is important because it could prevent the disease from spreading further.

“We know if we can stop just one person from spreading it to others, you interrupt that whole chain of transmission from that point,” Drix said.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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