Preventing the spread of disease is one of the pillars of public health. We all play a part in reducing disease spread when we wash our hands, cover our coughs and sneezes, get vaccinated, stay home and away from school, work and social gatherings when ill, and prepare and store food properly.

But did you know that case investigation, through an interviewing process, and contact tracing also protect our communities and contain virus spread? This is a trusted tool in preventing disease that has been used for decades to stop the spread of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, Ebola, SARS, and, now, COVID-19.

Without a vaccine, trusted public health interventions are the best way to control and contain the virus. Our public health staff perform case interviews, generally over the phone, to collect and provide information to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as their close contacts. These valuable interviews help us:

  • Understand who is at risk.
  • Follow up with high risk groups.
  • Track the progress of the outbreak in our area.
  • Inform future public health actions.

When we learn that someone has tested positive for COVID-19, our trained nursing staff reach out to talk to that person – this is known as a case interview. Case interviewers will never ask for or write down immigration status, Social Security numbers, financial information, marital status, or any other personal identifying information. We do ask individuals for their date of birth, address, race, and ethnicity, and other questions about where they’ve been and who they have been in close contact with. It’s important that those we contact provide honest and complete answers as this helps us understand the disease and stop the spread in the community.

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The next step in preventing the spread of disease is reaching out to the identified close contacts to let them know of the possible exposure. This step is known as contact tracing. Contact tracers call those individuals who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. People who have had close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 might be contagious and not know it.

When our interviewers reach out to someone identified as a contact, they will be asked a series of questions to determine if they meet the criteria for being a close contact to a confirmed case. If they have, they may be asked to quarantine. Again, the information collected is used only by public health. The information is protected in secure systems, and individual information is not shared. Interviewers operate under strict confidentiality rules. In fact, when a contact tracer calls you, they will not reveal the name of the individual who tested positive for COVID-19 and listed you as a close contact.

Every person interviewed receives guidance about how to keep themselves and others safe. Interviewers help connect people with resources they may need while they stay home for 14 days to ensure they are not sick (quarantine) or stay home to recover from being sick (isolation). Interviews can be conducted in multiple languages using skilled interpreters. We also provide education and outreach materials in several languages to ensure everyone understands the information being shared.

Our experience with other contagious diseases tells us that, with your help, we can control COVID-19, and continue to safely reopen our businesses and our economy. So, if you get a call from us, please answer and help us stop the spread!

Christa Seymour, BSN, PHN, is the Case Investigation Task Force Leader for Olmsted County Public Health Services.