A look at how COVID-19 contact tracing works in Pierce County

COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing is underway in the South Sound. It’s just a couple of tools health officials are using along with testing to contain the coronavirus.

Abraham Angel Acosta is a Case Investigator for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. He gets information on positive COVID-19 cases and starts an investigation. He’ll call the person who tested positive and ask a series of questions to determine the potential spread and exposure levels in the community.

“I’m in awe some times by how cooperative individuals are through their stress; their ability to communicate, their ability to be honest, their ability to care about those around them,” said Acosta. “I worked in a STD and HIV Clinic already, so I was already involved in case investigation and contact tracing, so it was a pretty easy switchover. This is a human endeavor to me. It’s not about numbers. It’s about people.”

However, the numbers have been steadily rising across Washington State.

In Pierce County, the Health Department was seeing record daily case numbers in recent weeks. There has been an average of 90 cases a day over the last two weeks, with 77 new cases reported on Tuesday.

After a positive COVID-19 case investigation, the case investigator will identify close contacts and that information is given to a contact tracer.

“We talk to them about isolation and quarantine, so being a counselor gives me the tools that are necessary to help people in need,” said David Carr.

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Carr is a Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department counselor who has been working as a Contact Tracer during the pandemic. His background in counseling has come in handy when it comes to giving guidance to people who may have been exposed.  

“The most rewarding part is when someone comes out of isolation and quarantine, and say they feel better and that what we did for them helped,” said Carr. “Seeing people recover from this virus really inspires us as contact tracers.”

Supervisor Kerra Gallagher also works as a Case Investigation Lead. In recent months, her main role is training and building up a workforce of Covid-19 case investigators and contact tracing investigators to ensure Pierce County is prepared on the chance it experiences a surge in cases.

“We’re going to continue to hire and train new case and contact investigators so we can continue to reach out to these people within 24 hours if there a positive case, or within 48 hours if they’re a contact. We’re going to continue to do our part to try and keep these case counts downs,” said Gallagher. “We aren’t going to tell them who they were exposed by. We just give a date of exposure, and then we give them the recommended quarantine based on that information. So you’re not going to be sold out to all your friends and family and you’ll have your identity protected.”

Gallagher said COVID-19 case and contact investigators will never ask for financial information. Their role is to give guidance on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the community.

A team of 15 to 25 COVID-19 investigators work daily in Pierce County, and get in touch with more than 100 closes contacts a day.