States move toward reopening, public health decisions continue to be in the spotlight.
As curves plateau and state economies continue to struggle, people around the country are asking: when will we get back to normal? Public health and government officials, however, focus on how we return to normal. As of May 1, more than half of US states began reopening businesses and easing previously strict orders and mandates. Although, what we remember as normal before this pandemic will not be how states reopen right away.
In order to contain this public health crisis, experts consider how to safely move toward reopening. Testing, tracing, and self-isolating will be key in taking the next steps. Communities will rely on four building blocks to combat COVID-19: contact tracing, testing, and eventual COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. These building blocks work together for an effective plan to return to society. Public health professionals will focus on where the virus is in communities and how to continue to reduce the spread.
What is Contact Tracing?
Contact tracing is a public health strategy designed to contain the spread of an infectious disease. The idea works by tracing and contacting each person who may have been in contact with an individual who tests positive for an infectious disease. By informing individuals when they may have been in contact with a positive case, we can monitor and advise others appropriately (e.g self isolate if they also show symptoms). The concept is fundamental to public health and even more important during the current pandemic. In the U.S., we are fortunate to have strong local health departments. The staff at health departments work as quiet soldiers day in and day out to keep our communities safe. When our everyday lives aren’t at risk of infectious disease, we don’t even realize the work being done by local health departments.
The Importance of Tracing Positive COVID-19 Cases
Johns Hopkins School of Public Health recently released a report on COVID-19 contact tracing in the United States. The report estimated each positive COVID-19 person can infect 2 to 3 other people, on average. This leads to an alarming statistic: if one person spreads the virus to three others, the first positive case can turn into more than 59,000 cases in 10 rounds of infections.
How Does Contact Tracing Work?
In addition to providing immunizations to the public, county health departments ensure communicable diseases such as STD, HIV, and tuberculosis (TB) do not spread in communities. They do this by helping infected individuals and tracing all contacts. For example, when someone tests positive for TB, health department staff are responsible for tracking and contacting all people who that person has been in contact with. The staff’s focus is to make sure each individual is safe and not positive for TB. If connected people show symptoms of the disease, appropriate actions will be advised, such as self-isolation. Electronic Health Records designed specifically for public health have contact tracing functionality for TB built into their software. During the normal course of life, an individual can come in contact with hundreds of people. The EHR software enables staff to efficiently contact and track positive cases, decreasing the chance of widespread infection.
Contact tracing can quickly isolate people who are or may be infected to stop the spread while allowing healthy people to engage in society. COVID-19 tracing efforts by public health departments will be critical as we reintegrate back into society. Additionally, if there is a second wave of COVID-19, preparing contact tracing measures now enables more effective action in the future.
How States are Already Working Towards Reopening
States, such as Maryland, have released extensive reopening plans to the public. Governor Larry Hogan recently stated that when moving toward reopening, his administration is working to “move rapidly, but not recklessly.” Maryland’s building blocks include testing and having a plan for enough personal protective equipment. They have additionally worked hard to prioritize their contact tracing workforce. COVID-19 Link, a new platform to be used for robust contact tracing operations, will help collect information about people who test positive for COVID-19 and anyone they have come in contact with. Maryland has expanded their workforces to 1,000 contact tracers who will be trained on this platform using data from the region’s health information exchange (CRISP). Public Health EHRs connect to Health Information Exchanges, including CRISP, to provide real-time data, which is crucial during an epidemic.
Public Health Workers, We’re Here for You.
We know county local health department staff are on the frontlines of finding answers about COVID-19 and doing hard work of contact tracing. As an Electronic Health Record provider focused on public health, we understand the importance of your work. Thank you, healthcare heroes! If there is any way that we can be a resource to you during this time, please reach out to us today