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Contact tracing helps to lower the impact of COVID-19 in St. Charles County

While the term contact tracing has been in the public conversation for a very short time, St. Charles County’s Department of Public Health has conducted “contact tracing” on COVID-19 positive individuals since March 18, when the department became aware of the county’s first positive test.

According to the county, that individual and the more than 450 additional residents who have tested positive since have been interviewed by health department epidemiologists and nurses to determine who they had been in close contact with that might, therefore, be at higher risk of becoming infected themselves.

Stay at home and other orders/guidance have made it easier to conduct contact tracing.

Health department staff have said that adherence to those orders has cut the average number of contacts in half – from 10 to five in St. Charles County. Presently, the rate of known infections for St. Charles County is less than half the rate for the city of St. Louis, according to county officials.

“I hope that stay-at-home orders can be relaxed sooner, rather than later,” County Executive Steve Ehlmann said in a press statement issued on April 20. Currently, the orders are in effect through May 3.

Ehlmann noted that contact tracing will become even more important as stay at home orders are relaxed.

“When they are, it will be even more important that we continue contact tracing and that individuals observe their quarantine orders. Contact tracing will actually reassure people it is safe to leave home. Customers will return to restaurants and nonessential businesses only if they feel safe from exposure to the virus,” Ehlmann predicted.

As of April 20, the county’s public health department has monitored 826 individuals who have completed their quarantine; 495 residents presently on quarantine.

“We cannot get our local economy going by simply relaxing the stay-at-home restrictions,” Ehlmann said. “We need to build confidence in consumers that they can leave their homes and remain safe.

“Until we have more testing available, contact tracing is a critical component to reassure our citizens that everything possible is being done to make sure those who are infected continue to stay at home. The virus doesn’t move, it is transported from an infected person to other people, so all of us need to continue to minimize our contact with others to minimize its spread.”

On a normal day, St. Charles County has two epidemiologists, but COVID-19 has meant the county has needed to pull in various resources in order to keep up with the volume. Health department nurses, school nurses, law enforcement detectives and volunteers – part-time and full time – are now part of a 15-person contact tracing team operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Demetrius Cianci-Chapman, St. Charles County Director of Public Health said, “If the number of cases increases, our team will have to stretch into the need. I anticipate that before the number of positive tests level off and start to decrease, we will need to quickly train more staff and volunteers to conduct case investigations, contact tracing, monitoring and quarantine management.”

The health department’s 75 employees are working on the front lines of COVID-19, staffing the county’s COVID-19 Information Hotline; doing data entry and analysis; conducting investigations; sending letters to those who may have been exposed to the virus; and following up daily with all who have been quarantined or isolated. Just staffing the hotline takes 14 people for each daily 12-hour shift, according to St. Charles County.

Contact tracing will continue as long as there are more cases, the county has said; the health department urges everyone to avoid contact with others.

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