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A closer look at the job of a coronavirus contact tracer

Telephone (File photo).
Telephone (File photo).
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WINNEBAGO COUNTY (WLUK) -- It’s a critical piece to stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Most of the time when I contact someone, they already know they’ve been exposed,” said Winnebago County Health Contact Investigator Mark Kainz.

Contact tracing. It starts when a nurse with Public Health interviews a person infected with COVID-19 and asks about anyone they’ve been in contact with two days before experiencing symptoms.

“Those names are called contacts and they get sent to people like me,” said Kainz who is a virologist and professor at Ripon College. He started contact tracing for Winnebago County Public Health in May.

“We’re trying our best to keep the virus from spreading in the community and one way we can do that is to help people know that they’ve been exposed,” said Kainz.

Contact tracers, who go through several hours of training before making their first phone call, have to take people at their word during an investigation.

“I think people are nervous or somewhat fearful," said Brown County Branch Director for Public Surveillance, Pamela Waise. "Maybe, perhaps, that they’re tattling on somebody or something."

She said contact tracer's phone calls can be as quick as 5-10 minutes or run up to an hour.

"I think once we’re able to establish a report or at least a relationship within that telephone conversation that we’re having, they’re a bit more willing to share information after, but initially there is definitely hesitation” said Waise.

"I suppose I’d be pretty naive to think that every single person I’ve talked to has told me 100% truthful stuff, but I think most people understand the seriousness of this and are fairly truthful,” said Kainz.

Though he does occasionally hear a story that doesn't add up.

“Sometimes it’s even a little humorous," Kainz recalls. "You may talk to them and they sound pretty above board and then perhaps the next person that you talk to is their roommate who spills the beans. Then you know someone is not telling the truth.”

Investigators want people to know they’re trying to protect the community, not out to bust anyone.

There’s nothing impunitive, there’s nothing judgmental when we are reaching out to gather information," said Waise. "It truly is in our best efforts to manage spread, control it as best we can, provide reassurance and give guidance and education whether it’s regarding symptoms or how to clean your house. That’s what we’re here for.”

“We’re not the COVID cops," said Kainz. "We’re actually on people’s side. We want to help the community and the individuals in it be healthy. While I’m sure it’s not on the top of anybody’s list to get called by a contact tracer, we’re actually trying to help you.”

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Kainz says there are scammers out there posing as contact tracers. He says an investigator will never ask for money a credit number or social security number.

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