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Fighting disease starts with contact tracing

Contact tracing
Posted at 6:21 PM, May 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-21 19:21:05-04

WACO, TX​ — The coronavirus pandemic has left us with a whole new vocabulary on how to live our life. Did you know what contact tracing was six months ago? Now you know it's an important part of public health that keeps us alive.

Contact tracing has always had an important role in pubic health. Why? Kelly Craine with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District says it's like an old shampoo commercial where a woman told two friends, those two friends told two friends, and so on.

Viruses spread just like that, so public health districts have a team of "health detectives" to track down where a virus came from and where it circulated.

It starts with the person that gets sick and involves everyone they've had contact with for a couple of weeks.

"When we get their list of all of their contacts and we're determining who's really at risk, then we reach out to those folks and, of course, we do that respecting the other person's privacy," said Craine.

Investigators ask leading questions to get people to remember things they might overlook, then the word goes out. Craine says it can stop a disease in its tracks.

"That's the whole point. It stops the chain. It stops the spread. That's what contact tracing does," she explained.

Once the chain gets broken, then the cleanup begins, keeping the illness contained while doctors eliminate it. Sick people, and even those with whom they've had contact with, all get daily check-ins.

"For people who are actually sick and have tested positive, symptoms, of course, we're going to talk to them every day, do a wellness chec, to see how they're doing," said Craine.

While the health detectives do much of their work on the phone, sometimes people are hard to find or don't want to be found. Those folks get a personal visit.

"We'll meet with them. One of the things is that we're not here to arrest anybody or take them to jail. Our experience with COVID as well as other illnesses, we're trying to be a resource," Craine said.

A resource that can offer health and help as people battle some of their most serious illnesses.

Craine says the basics of public heath never change, so when the next pandemic comes, the actions the health department takes will look a lot more familiar.