Colorado County Wrestles with Contact Tracing Attempts

Health officials in Boulder County, Colo., are struggling in their attempts to collect the data needed to track the novel coronavirus. Officials believe immigration status and joblessness may be factors.

by Charlie Brennan, Daily Camera / May 18, 2020
Shutterstock/theskaman306

(TNS) — Boulder County health workers are having trouble getting some people to share information needed to track the progress of the coronavirus, at a time when such information is critical to public health and key to the county’s recovery from the ongoing pandemic.

“I would say it’s an increasing trend, particularly among our Spanish speaking population of residents,” Boulder County Public Health spokesperson Chana Goussetis.

“I think it’s related to immigration status, as well as concerns about joblessness, concerns that if someone is identified as exposed to COVID, that their employer would then fire them, even if they don’t have any symptoms or haven’t tested positive themselves.”

More generally, she said, it’s likely some people just aren’t comfortable making a public record of everyone they have been in touch with on a day-to-day basis.

“I can’t speak to why people don’t want to share, but I think that could very well be the case, that they don’t want to share everybody they have been with. But it’s very important that we have the information that we can follow up on. It’s really the good way to stop the spread of disease, without keeping everybody home. And we don’t want to do that any longer.”

Health officials on Friday emphasized that in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent illness, hospitalization and even death, its communicable disease control staff needs those who have been sick to recall and share the details of everyone they have had close contact during the time they may have been infectious.

“We just want to reassure people that we don’t share your data with anyone. We don’t share your name with anyone. It’s purely just to stop the spread of the disease. We are not interested in any special activities they may have been sharing with each other.”

There are about 30 people, either trained epidemiologists or people working in teams under the direction of such professionals, working to get in touch with those contacts, to inform them of their potential exposure as rapidly and sensitively as possible.

“Contacts are provided with education, information, and support to understand their risk, what they should do to separate themselves from others who are not exposed, monitor themselves for illness, and the possibility that they could spread the infection to others even if they themselves do not feel ill,” a news release stated. “We want to reassure residents that we take their privacy very seriously.”

County health officials on Friday outlined a number of basic principles that guide their contact tracing work. They include, but are not limited to:

Contact tracing is only conducted for contacts of confirmed cases (individuals who have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19).

To protect patient privacy, contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19. Public Health will not share the identity of the patient who may have exposed them.

Public health staff may provide contacts with information to understand the circumstances of their exposure — such as possible date or location of contact with a COVID-19 positive individual and level of exposure risk — as long as information that identifies the positive individual is not divulged.

Public Health may ask contacts for basic information like name, address, and date of birth to confirm identity.

Public Health is required to protect the privacy of all patient and contact information it collects during contact tracing activities and use it only for authorized public health purposes.

Those contacted by personnel handling the contact tracing, Goussetis said, will never be asked for Social Security information.

“We have no need or use for a Social Security number. We have no need or use for financial information,” Goussetis said.

“The only time financial information would come into play would be if they tell us they don’t have a home to isolate in, if they need somewhere to stay, or some resources to isolate or quarantine. We would help them with that, but we would never ask how much do they make each year,” she said. “If someone does hear from someone asking that, that would be a red flag.”

Additionally, she said, contact trackers will always identify themselves as calling from “Boulder County Public Health.”

As of Thursday, 42 of the 55 — 76.4% — of Boulder County residents who have died from the coronavirus were associated with long-term care facilities, according to public health officials.

That should not, however, be taken as a sign that younger people should let their guard down, officials caution. County statistics show that the age bracket with the highest number of positive or probable COVID-19 cases is 20-to-29-year-olds, with 133.

“It is important to note that individuals associated with long-term care facilities make up less than 30% (225 of the total 794 through Thursday) of our Boulder County residents who have tested positive or are considered probable for COVID-19; emphasizing that the illness is not just impacting our older adults and all people must take the required precautions for themselves and the community as a whole,” Guossetis wrote in an email.

“The Safer at Home Public Health Order requires all of us to stay home as much as possible.”

Also on Friday, county health officials reported that in addition to the 55 COVID-19 deaths, 806 county residents have tested positive or probable for the coronavirus, 148 people required hospitalization and 316 have recovered from their illness. County epidemiologists have 139 disease investigations ongoing.

At the state level, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data show 1,150 deaths with 3,842 people hospitalized across 60 counties. A total of 21,232 people have tested or probable for the coronavirus, and 119,759 have been tested.

©2020 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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