Backcountry contact tracers fight COVID hysteria – and double as accidental advisers
Contact tracers in the far west of New South Wales have borne the brunt of the region’s frontline response to the coronavirus outbreak.
While navigating the task of tracking people’s movements and dealing with the increasing pressure of a public health emergency, they often find themselves as accidental advisers for positive cases and isolated close contacts.
Kathy Seward is COVID-19 Case Manager and Close Contact Team Leader for the Local Health District of Far West in NSW.
The public health nurse worked in the infectious disease unit for most of her career, but it was during the COVID-19 pandemic that she realized how important her job was.
It’s something a public health nurse never thinks it can happen, ”she said.
Hysteria caused by an outbreak of the Far West
Ms Seward said the outbreak in the far west of New South Wales had been difficult, with exposure sites often listed by location days or weeks before they appeared on the NSW Health website, causing anger and frustration in the community.
“I think the most difficult thing is probably the lack of understanding people have of what high and low risk casual contact is, and what the appropriate health guidelines are,” she said.
More than 290 cases have been recorded in the region, and most have emerged among vulnerable people in smaller communities – where rumors have spread faster than the facts.
“A lot of times we’ll have people who have been sick for days, their incubation period is at different times, there have been rumors about different things.”
“And we’ll find out their exposure at a later date, so we list everything we hear at that point, and sometimes it’s a little later.”
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Ms Seward said positive cases often cannot remember where they were from and recall several times with more information about their movements after the initial search efforts.
“I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have a hard time remembering what I did yesterday, so it’s really hard for people to do it.”
“If you don’t make that connection with this person directly, they won’t tell you what you need to know and that’s a real problem.”
“They are very scared when this happens”
Positive cases often first hear about their diagnosis when the contact tracer calls them, which can evoke a wave of emotions from the positive case.
“I think the hard thing for me is the fear that people have … they are afraid; they are afraid [they] are going to be in trouble. “
QR code records have become a crucial source of connecting cases and controlling outbreaks, but Ms Seward said contact tracers need to dig deeper if not used properly.
“We ask for bank statements, receipts.”
“Sometimes it takes a little while and it’s really hard to do; you have to get really intense information from these people.”
Broken Hill resident Miranda Cooper first found out she was a close contact through a phone call from a contact tracer.
“I just got an unexpected call,” she said.
“They asked me who I lived with and if I was with anyone. You had to make arrangements for them to leave or isolate them with you, but luckily my roommate was away.”
She was ordered to self-isolate and had to complete a daily questionnaire to help her case manager monitor her symptoms and determine if she needed food or other supplies.
“One of my first reactions was, ‘oh my gosh I’m really worried’,” she said.
“You start to think about the people you interacted with because I’m young and most likely able to get over all the symptoms, but that’s if you’ve exposed someone more vulnerable than yourself.”
Ms Cooper said the contact tracers and case managers she spoke with were exceptional and helped her through the 14 days of isolation.
“It’s totally lonely to be stuck in a house by yourself and you don’t get a chance to talk to people unless you call them, but the people who called me have been so nice , so polite, nice and told you to hang yourself in there. “
“Contact tracing is not just about COVID”
Far West LHD chief executive Umit Agis praised the efforts of local contact tracers as invisible frontline workers in the pandemic.
“If you see the number of hours they put into it… it’s not an easy task because a person that you have so many points of contact with and trying to track them all down and engage them is a huge undertaking.” , did he declare.
Mr Agis admitted that delays in posting exposure sites to official listings had been a problem, but work was underway to streamline contact tracing processes, especially as the outbreak in the Far West is fading.
“People are working really hard to close the gap between notifying a place and uploading it to the website, I know it’s an ongoing challenge.
Ms Seward said contact tracers treat several reportable diseases that require contact management, and the profession has grown in popularity.
“There are over 60 reportable diseases that we work with, all of which require some degree of contact tracing,” she said.
“The world of public health is getting bigger by the minute.”