Following the virus: Contact tracers, case investigators busy with pandemic

Skip Cowan with the Harvey County Health Department prepares to mail a sample. Wendy Nugent/HC Now

By Wendy Nugent, HC Now

NEWTON—Contact tracing with COVID-19 is like chasing the many threads of a spider web. You find one and another thread gets attached.

Since the pandemic started in 2020, there have been 2,735 COVID-19 cases in Harvey County, at least as of Monday, Jan. 11. That’s at least 2,735 extra contacts, if not many, many more the Harvey County Health Department contact tracers have to make.

Skip Cowan, health department community services coordinator, has done disease investigations for the county since 2010 and dealing with COVID-19 tracing is part of his job.

There’s been so many cases, Cowan doesn’t know how many people they’ve contacted.

“Thousands,” he said. “I couldn’t even begin to give you numbers.”

Disease investigations include two parts—case investigators who call people who are illness positive, while contact tracers talk to folks identified by people testing positive as close contacts, people who were less than six feet away from them for more than 10 minutes.

This can include family members, fellow employees, classmates and others.

Case investigators talk to the people testing positive, asking them questions, like when their symptoms started and making sure things are OK with them, like asking what their temperatures are and if their symptoms have improved.

Case investigators and contact tracers check on their people daily.

If people are symptom-free for three days with something that’s communicable, like COVID-19, they release them back into their lives so they can go back to work or school.

The health department has four people doing the case investigations and two doing contact tracing with other staff filling in as needed.

“We always do disease investigations,” Cowan said, like with chicken pox or hepatitis.

If it’s foodborne illness, they’ll call the person, asking them questions, like where and what they ate and when and if they got the food at a grocery store or eating in a restaurant.

“Everything we do goes on a system called EpiTrax, so the state can see the data we collect,” Cowan said, adding each disease has its own set of questions on EpiTrax.

The state then looks at the trends to find the source of the problem.

Cowan said every health department has disease investigators.

Cowan also wanted to distinguish the difference between isolation and quarantine. Isolation is for a person who’s tested positive and quarantine is for a person with no symptoms, at least at first, who has been exposed.

He said quarantine now is for 10 days, but the person has the opportunity to get a PCR nose or saliva test on day six, and if they’re negative on day seven, they can be around others. They have to wait for the test result, however long, Cowan said. Isolation is 10 days.

As of Monday, there were 288 active cases in Harvey County, according to a Harvey County news release.

Cowan said that 99 percent of the time, they contact people by phone and people usually are cooperative.

“For the most part, people have been super respectful,” Cowan said, adding that people can refuse to talk to them, but they’re still bound by state statute to isolate and quarantine.

All positive and negative COVID-19 test results are sent to the state and the health department gets their information from the state.

“If someone were to have an antigen test and it comes up positive, if within 48 hours they get a PCR confirmatory test [that comes up negative], they’ll be free [from quarantine or isolation],” Cowan said.

A PCR COVID-19 test determines active COVID, Cowan said, and people can get this test at their providers or for free at the outlet mall south of town.

“There’s several investigators and we’re bound to call all the positives,” Cowan said, adding they can write letters for people in isolation or quarantine for school or work. “We’re very willing to help people out.”