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In-Depth: Contact tracing remains important line of defense against infectious disease

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Posted at 10:50 PM, Oct 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-05 14:18:16-04

CLEVELAND — Like any other case, President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 test will set into motion a series of events designed to determine who the president might have been in close contact with. That investigation—called contact tracing—is considered by many experts to be one of the best ways of handling new outbreaks and potential COVID-19 clusters.

President Trump announced early Friday morning that he and the first lady had tested positive for the virus. The president had been in Cleveland earlier in the week for the first presidential debate. The incubation period for COVID-19 is anywhere between two to 14 days, although in many cases the period is between three to five days. It remains unclear where and how President Trump was infected with the virus.

Members of the small crowd that attended the debate in person were required to be tested for the virus. Anyone with a positive test was not allowed inside.

In typical cases, once a person has tested positive for the virus, contact tracers—which act almost like disease detectives—will ask the patient a series of questions about their activities prior to the positive test. Eventually, the contact tracers will work to find out who the patient might have been in close contact with.

Generally, close contact is defined as another person who may have been within six feet of the patient for at least 10 minutes. The people identified as close contacts will be alerted by the contact tracers of their possible exposure and risk of infection. All parties are then asked to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.

Although the close contacts are not apprised of the identity of the person who tested positive for the virus, sometimes they are not forthcoming with information to contact tracers.

“When we call the contacts, you get a variety of responses. Sometimes people hang up, sometimes they cuss us out,” said Romona Brazile of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

The contact tracers will also ask the close contacts about any possible pre-existing conditions and advise them on how to keep the virus from spreading in their homes. The goal of contact tracing is to determine who might have been exposed in order to keep the virus from spreading uncontrollably.

Whether it be SARS, HIV or Ebola, contact tracing has been used by epidemiologists and virologists for decades. It is considered by many to be one of the best ways to prevent further spread of disease

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health has had anywhere from 60 to 75 contact tracers and can activate more as they are needed, officials said. Additionally, the state has dozens of contact tracers that can help assist those working on the local level.