Contact tracers needed in Harris County in the fight against COVID-19

As non-essential businesses continue to reopen in our area, experts are keeping a close eye on illnesses to try to prevent COVID-19 cases from spiking in our community.

A group of epidemiologists with Harris County Public Health plays one of the most important roles in monitoring COVID-19 cases in our community. These "disease detectives" use an important tool called contact tracing.

"Contact tracing is when we discover we have a positive case, and we want to figure out either who they've come in contact with or transferred the disease to them, to try to figure out the network of disease spread," explains Elya Franciscus, the Lead Epidemiologist.

They're trying to identify who has been near anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. This helps them figure out who the patient contracted the disease from and anyone else who may be infected.

“We ask given the timeline of when they got sick: have they traveled anywhere, who they may have had close contact with, household members, where they work, where they may have gone shopping, out to eat, all of those questions," says Elya.

They're looking for "close contacts" of patients, which is considered to be anyone within six feet of an infected person for at least 10 minutes. Close contacts are asked to stay home, maintain social distancing and self-monitor symptoms until they are tested or for two weeks.

The investigations can take a lot of resources and time, but technology is key. Jerry Miller is a former NASA employee who is now the lead technologist for Harris County Public Health. He helped develop an app that allows patients to report their daily symptoms.

"We realized very early on that the case load was going to quickly become too much for the epidemiologists to monitor patients the traditional way, which is phone calls once or twice a day. They use a cell phone or tablet and answer simple questions about their symptoms and whether they need us to contact them and click submit," says Jerry.

He's alerted if someone's symptoms worsen and he can immediately have an epidemiologist check on the patient and perhaps give directions on getting them to a hospital.

"We see their symptoms, we see if they have a fever, we see their location, because as you know, when someone is under monitoring, they're asked to restrict their movements," explains Jerry.

This, all in an effort to help lower the spread of the coronavirus and make sure our hospitals don't get overwhelmed with patients.

Harris County Public Health is looking to hire more than 40 people to serve as contact tracers.

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