By REBECCA MEHORTER
Specially Written for The Leader/Times
WESTFIELD — As New Jersey inches toward reopening schools, gyms and all of the businesses that have had their lights off since mid-March, a group of healthcare workers is toiling to ensure that the journey back to normalcy is a smooth one. Contact tracers from the Westfield Regional Health Department (WRHD) have been working seven days a week for the past six months to reach out to residents who have been exposed to Covid-19 in order to prevent them from further spreading the novel coronavirus.
Contact tracing, according to WRHD Health Officer Megan Avallone, is a strategy used in public health to prevent outbreaks of sickness. Contact tracers interview a person who has tested positive for illness, in this case Covid-19, to find out where the person has been and who they have been in close contact with in the two days before they exhibited symptoms or before they tested positive, in the event that no symptoms are present.
The tracers then reach out to people who have been exposed to the virus to explain the situation and answer any questions about the recommended 14-day quarantine. The two-week quarantine starts from the latest exposure to the confirmed virus.
What makes the process difficult is that the 14-day quarantine must be completed even if the person who has been exposed produces a negative test during that time. Ms. Avallone explained that the test is only a reflection of one pinpoint of time and that since the person can develop symptoms at any point during the virus’ 14-day incubation period, a negative test does not mean an individual does not have to quarantine. However, by choosing to self-isolate, people who have been exposed to the virus ensure they do not pass it to anyone else.
“And essentially, that is how we break the chain of infection,” Ms. Avallone told The Westfield Leader. “We’re separating people after they’ve been exposed, but before they become sick, so if they do become sick, they don’t have the opportunity to infect people.”
As New Jersey eases into reopening, especially schools, contact tracing helps to keep the infection rate low. “The less spread of infection there is in the community, the better chance we have of keeping outbreak out of the schools,” Ms. Avallone said.
Right now, the infection rate in New Jersey is 0.83, according to covidactnow.org. This number means that for every one person who gets the virus, 0.83 people are infected. So the number of active cases is going down. Contact tracing is one of the factors contributing to this decrease.
“Contact tracing limits that infection rate because we’re limiting the people who can potentially carry the virus along,” Ms. Avallone said.
“When we talk about reopening and people resuming social activities, it’s even more important that we have a robust contact tracing plan and contact tracing team, so we can let individuals know very quickly if they’ve been exposed so they can stay home and not get other people sick,” Ms. Avallone told The Leader.
The World Health Organization writes that, “when countries have passed the peak of transmission and case numbers are decreasing, and particularly when stringent public health and social measures are being adjusted, rapid identification of cases and contact tracing are critical to maintain low levels of transmission and rapidly identify and break new transmission chains.”
It goes on to say that, “by participating in contact tracing, communities will contribute to controlling local spread of Covid-19, vulnerable people will be protected, and more restrictive measures, such as general stay-at-home orders, might be avoided or minimized.”
But Westfield residents’ compliance with contact tracing also is voluntary, according to Ms. Avallone. There has been mixed reactions from residents when contact tracers get in touch. Many people, she said, are fully cooperative and make her job easier and the community safer. One issue she said tracers are having is getting calls back from residents. She said tracers also will send text messages to reach out to residents. She added that residents do not always want to share who they have been in contact with.
Ms. Avallone assured The Leader that an individual’s personal and medical information is confidential. She said she wants residents to know that the contact tracers are not scary, they are not trying to get people in trouble and are not judging people’s actions. She said their goal is solely to get more information to make the community safer.
“We’re not the quarantine police,” she said. “We’re looking for compliance, of course, but we’re not looking to punish individuals for behaviors. I think the ask is for residents to understand that what we’re doing goes hand in hand with the community to get back to where we were pre-Covid.”