As Tennessee’s battle against COVID-19 continues, the state is looking to bring in more contact tracers in June to support the estimated 350 already active.

Wilson County is part of that effort, with family nurse practitioner Leslie Durham now working full-time with the local health department to investigate the virus’s spread through the county.

“When I’ve talked to people with positive cases, it seems more often than not that they have not followed social distancing, isolation or quarantine guidelines,” she said. “A lot of the spread has come from people going to work when they’re sick or people transmitting it to family members at home. I haven’t seen that much of people getting it from going places like the grocery store.”

Durham said that makes it important for people to follow the CDC’s health and safety measures in the workplace, and for those feeling sick not to clock in.

But work is not the only place to contract the virus, and there are more cases surfacing as Tennessee continues its phased reopening. Wilson County has confirmed 290 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, and Durham estimated she has spoken with 90% of them. Statewide numbers were not available by presstime, as the Department of Health said it was having technical difficulties that was delaying Friday’s release of information.

“Most people have filled out a form when they tested and given a phone number where they can be reached,” she said. “We look to two days before their symptoms started to cover the incubation period, and talk about where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with and for how long.”

Durham said those conversations usually last about 45 minutes, including the time it takes to reach out to family and friends and suggest quarantine measures.

“Quarantine time is a minimum of 10 days after the onset of symptoms,” she said, noting that it was increased from seven days. “Then you have to have three days of feeling better and no fever, according to the CDC’s guidelines, before the quarantine can end.”

Similar guidelines apply to those who have come into contact with a positive case, and the Wilson County Health Department has guidelines for those living together.

“If you’re a household contact, your chances of getting it are higher,” Durham said. “You have to isolate for 14 days from when the person with the virus started getting better, because it can linger on surfaces for two weeks. We’re also asking people to sleep in different rooms and use different bathrooms if possible, but if they can’t the person with the virus should clean the bathroom before and after they use it.”

Non-household contacts are asked to self-isolate for two weeks based on when they could have been exposed to the virus.

“That part can be confusing for a lot of people,” Durham said. “For instance, there was a long-term care facility where a lot of staff had been in this particular place, and they told us, ‘Everyone’s been in there, we’re going to have to give you about 25 numbers.’ But we only needed to know who had been around during the two-day incubation period, so that narrows it down a lot.”

Bill Christian, a spokesman for Tennessee Department of Health, said contact tracing is a critical part of the agency’s response to any reportable disease.

“It is important to identify people infected with COVID-19, and those at highest risk of becoming ill with COVID-19, their contacts,” he said. “By identifying those people and encouraging them to stay home and away from others, we can limit the spread of the virus in our communities.”

Durham said the data will be useful long-term for tracking COVID-19’s curve at the county level, which could shape responses to future diseases.

“I think one thing it helps with right now is with figuring out how to advise people,” she said. “Once you see how much it spreads, people start to realize that this infection is serious.”

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