Dr. Lynn Paxton wants you to know that if someone from Fulton County contacts you about possibly being exposed to COVID-19, please answer the call or at least return their voicemail or email message. Your health and the health of others could be at risk.

Paxton, Fulton’s district health director, said too often individuals don’t respond to the county’s representatives when it comes to contact tracing, the practice of reaching out to individuals who may have been exposed to a virus by someone else.

“That has been incredibly challenging,” she said. “We have a number of places where we’re experiencing difficulties. For example, some people just don’t answer the phone. When we call them and they don’t pick up, it’s very difficult to speak with them. There are some people who don’t have phones, and (with) some of the people we get numbers for, (we) have the wrong phone number. About 85% will listen and 15% will say no right away. Some don’t trust the government. Some people won’t tell us who they’ve been in contact with and may say they were home for the past month.”

As more Fulton residents get tested, more positive cases will arise, Paxton said. Contact tracing, which in the past has been used in combating other viruses such as AIDS, the swine flu or Zika, is the best way to keep the numbers of cases down.

“We know how to control this epidemic: first by not transmitting it in the first place,” said Paxton, who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before joining Fulton in May. “But the true core of this is to identify people who have contracted it and have them self-isolated. … If you want to go back to living the normal life you were living pre-COVID, you have to do this. Our numbers are rising and they’ll continue to rise if they don’t do this.”

The data supports her claim. The number of cases reported each day from June 15 through 21 were 133, 110, 128, 74, 56, 32 and 55, respectively. By comparison, from May 24 through 30, there were 27, 24, 76, 69, 41, 45 and 18 cases, respectively.

In Fulton, as of June 24, there were 6,052 confirmed cases, 302 deaths and 1,017 hospitalizations overall. As of the same date, Georgia had 69,381 confirmed cases, 2,698 deaths, 10,313 hospitalizations and 2,206 ICU admissions. Also June 24, the state had 886,584 total coronavirus tests, with only 8.0% (71,276) coming back positive.

Paxton said the county gets notified about who has tested positive for the virus through the public and private labs that individuals use for testing, through the State Electronic Notifiable Disease Surveillance System.

The county has about 75 contact tracers, with some hired through the state and others being volunteers recruited through local medical schools and schools of public health, she said.

According to Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health, which is coordinating contact tracing with individual counties, a contact tracer would ask you only for the following:

♦ your contact information (name, email address and address)

♦ your demographic information (ethnicity, race)

♦ what symptoms you may have, if any

♦ if anyone has been in close contact with you while they may have been infectious

“We do NOT ask for financial information, insurance information or Social Security number or any kind of payment,” Nydam said. Paxton added contact tracers can’t identify who may have exposed someone to COVID-19 because of patient privacy laws.

The department also has released a 94-second video to educate the public on contact tracing. To view the video, visit https://bit.ly/2Nscxvl.

Paxton said in addition to some individuals being distrustful of the government in general, others who are undocumented immigrants may also avoid replying to contact tracers’ messages for fear of being deported. But they have nothing to worry about and contact tracers are straightforward, she added.

“When we contact a person, we make certain they know they tested positive and we give them instructions on self-quarantining,” Paxton said. “Then we make sure we have their proper contact information and then we simply (tell) them, based on the time we talk to them, ‘Your probable infectious period is such and such date to such and such date.’

“There’s a distinction. If someone was in an elevator with others for 30 seconds, we’re not going to ask them about those people. But if they were in contact with a person for 10 minutes, we’ll ask them about that.”

Paxton said Fulton is about to start using a web-based scheduling app called MS Dynamics, which allows clients to go online to schedule their own tests without having to use the county’s call center.

“Once they do that, they’re sent a QR code to take to the testing site,” she said. “It gets scanned, they go home, and once the test is ready, the result is pushed to them through this app.

“Let’s say we have reached out and are talking to a contact. What we’ll do is we’ll input that contact info into the web-based app, and then the app will send that person a reminder for the next 14 days to stay inside. If they have any symptoms, they should go get a test for COVID-19 then and there. We also advise people who are our contacts who were in contact with someone who has the virus should be tested around the 10th day of their isolation period. The app decreases some of our personnel time. There’s some people who prefer (using an app over talking to human beings).”

The health director also said the county is using the MTX disease monitoring and control app, which provides it and others, such as airports, with real-time info in predicting at-risk communities, disease growth rates and watching the virus’ spread.

Paxton said the main goal is “to make it more accessible to the initial case.”

“We know someone who’s been contacted may give us (a list of) everyone they know that day, but the next day they may wake up and say, ‘Oh, I also was also in contact with Joe Blow,’” she said, adding they can easily add that person’s name to the list.

Paxton warned a second wave of the virus could come soon as Fulton residents relax some amid phased reopenings of facilities such as restaurants and pools.

“It’s been a slow rise, but we expect it to start picking up,” she said. “I’m staring outside my (office) window right now and looking at the street and seeing lots of people not wearing masks. That’s where we’re failing. If they take the foot off the pedal of COVID prevention, we’ll start getting engulfed again in COVID cases.

“To paraphrase Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH director, ‘We might be tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us.’”

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