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Tips for helping contact tracers

A lot has  happened since the last health department column appeared in these pages two weeks ago.

Then, it was reported that the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Monongalia County had risen by 41 cases between June 22 and July 2.

At the time, it seemed overwhelming. After all, it had taken us from March 19 to June 30 to get to 162.

Those numbers kept on rising. In fact, later on that Sunday two weeks ago, my boss asked me to write a press release because COVID-19 numbers had gone from 162 to 262 between July 1-5, an increase of nearly 62%. In five days.

If only we knew that two weeks later, we would have zoomed past 600 cases, rocketing past the previous “high-count” counties of Kanawha and Berkeley.

This activity has prompted Gov. Jim Justice to order bars closed for at least 10 days, as well as Monongalia County Health Department, with the cooperation of municipal and county officials, to enact an ordinance requesting businesses to comply with Justice’s mask order in public buildings, and creating a tiered system to deal with businesses that have three employees or customers test positive for COVID-19.

All the new cases have overwhelmed our disease investigators and contact tracers at Monongalia County Health Department. In fact, we’re asking for volunteers who can work in four-hour shifts and who can take the online contact tracing course provided by Johns Hopkins University (

After all, in addition to the recent surge, we’re still waiting for all the results of three days of free testing that took place recently in Morgantown. And on Monday, West Virginia University begins to test 35,000 students, faculty and staff members. MCHD will  conduct the disease investigation and contract tracing for those results as well.

Less than a month ago, my column was on contact tracers and what they face: Calling an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19, maybe reaching the person quickly or maybe not… or maybe not until after making several attempts.

Then the contact tracer figures out when the individual was symptomatic and tries to determine who the person might have come into close contact during that time.

After that, the goal is to get good, reliable contact information for those individuals and call each one of them to ask them to quarantine and self-monitor for symptoms.

At the same time, contact tracers continue to make daily calls or initiate a text system to monitor symptoms. This monitoring is not only for individuals who test positive, but also to their contacts.

You can see it’s a herculean task even if all goes well. But lately, it’s not been so easy.

Sometimes tests come back with incomplete information for a positive individual, such as no address and occasionally, no phone number.

Sometimes the contact tracers get hung up on, or worse, cursed out and then hung up on.

Sometimes the positive individual is reluctant to give out contact information for their friends.

This makes contact tracing difficult.

Here’s how to make the process easier for the health officials who are battling the COVID-19 pandemic: 

  • If you get tested, please provide as much contact information as you can at the testing site. If you can’t be contacted with a positive result, then you cannot receive the help you need.
  • If you get a call from a contact tracer, please be as helpful and forthright as possible. The contact tracers’ goal is not to pass judgment. It’s to try to find individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and make sure they are OK and that they don’t spread it more.
  • If you have COVID-19 symptoms, stay at home and stay away from others in your household.
  • Please abide by the mask ordinance. Studies show that individuals who wear masks are much less likely to infect someone else if they are sick or be infected if they weren’t sick.
  • Maintain a six-foot social distance from others in public.
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Tired of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”? Think of another song to sing or hum for 20 seconds.

Please, please, please, do your part. We’re all in this together.

Email  Mary Wade Burnside at