MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — One of the keys to containing COVID-19 during the pandemic has been contact tracing — a way to find out who has been exposed to the virus and getting them quarantined as quickly as possible. But, with cases rising every day in Minnesota, how does it work?

WCCO’s Heather Brown looked into this Good Question.

Inside a large conference room inside of the Minnesota Department of Health are infectious disease investigators calling each Minnesotan who tests positive for COVID-19. In total, there are 150 who work in shifts. They call seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Cody Schardin leads one of the teams. He said of the five to eight calls, on average, he makes a day, each one is different.

“I’ve interviewed people who are very ill and in the hospital, where they’ve asked ‘can you call me back at a later date’,” Schardin said. “But, then I get people who say they feel great.”

It’s a two-part call. First, the investigator asks about the patient: What are their symptoms? What are their underlying conditions? Then, they move onto contacts. They’ll start with family members living at home before moving onto questions about who the patients has had contact with in the days before and since symptoms began.

“Fortunately, at this point in the stay-at-home order, it’s mostly household contacts,” said Schardin. “I’d say the most frequent thing is someone having friends over for a playdate, something along those lines.”

Schardin says most any contacts in retail locations would not be considered close. The criteria is exposure of less than six feet for an hour.

Investigators will then call those close contacts and ask them to quarantine for 14 days. Depending on the work situation, the investigators might also call the human resources department of the patient’s employer.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there’s no law requiring a case to give the names of their contacts, but most cases give this information. Contact tracers do not identify the original case, unless they are given permission by the patient to do so.

Across the country, health departments have been adding contact tracers. On Wednesday, Deputy Health Commissioner Margaret Kelly told state legislators Minnesota might eventually need 4,200 contact tracers to keep up.

The state expects to have 1,000 people doing interviews within the next few months. Those investigators would include people from county health departments and local non-profit organizations.

“It’s incredibly labor intensive,” said Kris Ehresmann, head of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health. “Ultimately, you want to identity individuals who could be infectious, who could spread disease to other cases, the goal is to isolate them.”

Ehresmann said the goal would be to reach each of the contacts within 24 hours, but that has increased since case counts are rising. She also points out many of the more recent patients are people who don’t speak English as a first language, so the Department of Heath has brought in interpreters.

“We need to have staff who speak multiple languages,” she said. “It’s really important that people hear the information they need to hear.”

Ehresmann says Minnesota is working on a more automated program to email or text the contacts.

Heather Brown