Contact tracing key in preventing future outbreaks, need for social distancing in Oklahoma

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As plans to lift social distancing guidelines get closer, health leaders insist measures like contact tracing will be key for preventing more outbreaks in the future.

Containing COVID-19 as completely as possible is the idea behind contact tracing. It’s the practice of tracking everyone who recently came into contact with a person who’s sick.

Officials have been telling those people to isolate for 14 days, but as tests becoming more available, doctors say testing all of those direct contacts is the best defense.

“Some areas of the country are testing people who have symptoms. My argument is that it’s too late if you wait until the patient has symptoms because they may well have been shedding the virus for several days before they get symptoms,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, the OU Med Enterprise Chief Quality Officer.

He insists the testing everyone would be the best way to prevent more outbreaks and a need for widespread social distancing measures in the future.

Dr. Bratzler said he believes by the fall, Oklahoma should have more testing capability in the state.

But in order to conduct the aggressive level of contact tracing necessary, the state will need more people doing it.

Right now, contact tracing is done by epidemiologists, nurses, and other employees in the county and state health departments. An Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesperson said they have about 150 people who contact trace as part of their job, but the department plans to hire 30 to 40 more people to do it full time.

Dr. Bratzler said even more may be needed.

“The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials has suggested that Oklahoma could need as many as 1,200 people to do that contact tracing if we do it really well,” he said. 

It’s work that requires training on how to effectively talk to patients.

According to the Oklahoma City County Health Department, their epidemiologists are trying to find anyone who had close contact of six feet or more with a confirmed case for 10 minutes or longer during the contagious period. That contagious period is considered to be two days before symptoms began, and 14 days after.

As for finding strangers who a confirmed case may have infected in a store or public transit, for example, that could come down to cell phone apps that are in development by companies like Apple or Google.

No matter how it’s done, doctors believe identifying cases and reaching people they may have contacted will be the key to keeping the novel coronavirus under control for the time being.

“Let’s assume 4% of Oklahomans have been exposed to the virus, and let’s assume that that means that they’re immune to the disease (there is no proof). That means 96% of the population is still out there and very susceptible. That’s why when you heard [Dr. Robert Redfield] this morning at the CDC talking about outbreaks, that’s the real concern,” said Dr. Bratzler. “The big majority of Americans are still quite susceptible to this virus and it could come back with a vengeance in the fall or winter if it’s a seasonal virus, so we’ve got to be ready.”

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