Coronavirus cases overwhelming some counties in tracking its path

Cedarville pharmacy students Mary Sprow, Lucy Ebangha and Rachel Balentine doing contact tracing. CONTRIBUTED
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Cedarville pharmacy students Mary Sprow, Lucy Ebangha and Rachel Balentine doing contact tracing. CONTRIBUTED

Public health departments working long hours to keep up with large increases in cases in past two weeks.

As coronavirus cases rise, the workers who trace the path of the virus and notify sick people and their close contacts are having a harder time keeping up the pace.

Statewide, coronavirus cases have been climbing in October and November. Ohio reported more than 5,000 daily cases for the second time on Saturday, which was also the fourth straight day with at least 4,000 cases.

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When a person tests positive for the coronavirus, a health care worker known as a contact tracer will connect to ask questions. These local workers confidentially inform the person’s recent close contacts that they need to quarantine because they could be infectious. The contact tracers also help connect people to support if they need it in order to isolate, such as if they need help with accessing food while isolating at home.

The challenge rises along with the cases.

“That takes and extraordinary amount of time,” said Jennifer Bailer, commissioner of the Butler County General Health District. “We have had over 10,000 positive cases in Butler County since march, and each person requires a call. And it may take up to three times to get someone on the phone.

"Then, say they give us three to eight contacts they were around, they all need to be contacted. That’s a huge number of calls, and people always have questions that need to be answered.”

Preble County Public Health Commissioner Erik Balster said phone calls to cases and their contacts may be delayed because of rising case counts and limited staff. He said about half of the staff of 19 people in Preble County are working on the COVID-19 outbreak, with about 252 cases they are actively monitoring. Even with the help of Wright State students pitching in on contact tracing, they’ve been working long hours to keep up.

The same group of students has been helping Butler County with its contact tracing efforts.

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“Our demand is surpassing our supply of being able to keep up with it,” Balster said. “We are getting it done, it’s just not at the pace we were able to do basically up until the last couple weeks.”

In a notice to the public Tuesday, Preble County Public Health said while waiting for contact from the health department, if you are being tested you should stay home and isolate while waiting for results. If you get a positive test, isolate away from other family members for 10 days from when symptoms began.

If you’re positive, you can also contact people you have been in close contact with up to 48 hours before your symptoms started up until the point you isolated. A close contact is anyone within six feet, masked or not, for at least a total 15 minutes.

Health officials emphasized that people who are asked to quarantine need to complete their quarantine for the full 14 days even if they get a negative test. Sometimes people can test negative because they are not at a point when the virus would be detected by a test, but could still potentially infect people if they break quarantine early.

In normal times, a team of two public health workers in Montgomery County trace contacts for more typical diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases. Now about 50 people are in on the effort.

One of the impacts with delays in contact tracers reaching sick people is that it means delays in alerting their contacts so they know they need to quarantine to avoid unknowingly transmitting the disease to someone else.

It also means delays in helping people who might need support in order to stay home, because their team can help connect people to social services for things like groceries if needed in order to stay home.

The last challenge is helping those who need to isolate with their own needs.

“If they are put in isolation they can’t go to work and they can’t provide for themselves and their family so we actually send boxes of food to people who cannot take care of themselves in any other way," Bailer said. "Shared Harvest provides boxes of food for their 14 days,

“So there is just a whole lot with it, it has been very challenging, but we have a very good system that is working super well.”

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