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Casper health officials struggle with contact tracing, asks residents to return calls
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Casper health officials struggle with contact tracing, asks residents to return calls

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Covid-19 Press Conference

Hailey Bloom, public information officer of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department, speaks during a March 13 press conference in Casper.

After a person tests positive for COVID-19, a representative from their local health department will give them a call to find out if they’ve been around anyone during their window of infection.

This is called contact tracing and it’s been a vital tool for health officials working to identify infections before they become outbreaks, thus limiting the spread of a virus that has so far killed nearly 217,000 people in the U.S. alone.

But in order for health officials to do this job effectively, people need to answer their phone.

It’s becoming harder to get a hold of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts, Hailey Bloom, spokesperson for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department said Friday.

The county’s health officials in a press briefing Wednesday also urged residents to cooperate with such efforts. Director of the county health department, Anna Kinder, urged residents to be forthcoming if called by a contact tracer.

That press briefing was to inform the community that Wyoming Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, had neared capacity after admitting a record number of COVID-19 patients. Health officials urged residents to wear masks, social distance and avoid large gatherings to help reverse the trend.

County Health Officer Dr. Ghazi Ghanem said at the time there is no judgement if someone tests positive, and they should be candid about what they were doing in the days before testing positive, and who they’ve encountered—not to be punished, but so that people unwittingly exposed to the virus can be notified.

Bloom acknowledged that most people receiving a call from an unknown number will probably send it to voicemail, fearing spam. That’s expected, Bloom said. But the department is having trouble getting all of those people to call back once they’ve listened to the voicemail explaining the purpose of the call.

Fewer people are returning voicemails than earlier in the pandemic, and some are “completely unreachable,” Bloom said. “It makes (contact tracing) almost impossible” in those situations.

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Confusion around contact tracing has not been limited to Natrona County. Gov. Mark Gordon issued a statement Friday clarifying that members of the Wyoming National Guard who have been deployed to assist in contact tracing efforts are not being used for “any enforcement activities whatsoever.”

Guard members are only helping contact people who might have been exposed to the virus by someone who has already tested positive, the statement reads.

If you test positive for COVID-19, or have had close contact with someone who has, here’s what you should expect, according to Bloom:

Once a person tests positive for the virus, a contact tracer will call them with a handful of questions to identify where they’ve been, and who they might have been in close contact with.

Bloom said if that person was in any public gatherings, the department would investigate further to ensure there weren’t a large number of infections tied to one event.

But most typically, the close contacts are those who the positive person lives and works with.

The health department will then contact those individuals to notify them that they’ve been in contact with a recent positive case, and to ensure that they self-quarantine for 14 days.

The department doesn’t reach out to the close contacts of those people until or unless that individual tests positive themselves.

Bloom said health officials will attempt to contact a person three to four times over the course of a week, calling at different times of day, hoping to reach the individual. If the person have a mailing address, the department would then attempt to reach them by mail. But if that person doesn’t call back, there’s no way for the department to ensure they aren’t spreading the virus.

Bloom stressed that contact tracers are “not out to judge or punish you,” if you test positive for the virus. “No one is in trouble,” she said.

“The end goal is really just to protect other people.”

Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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