CHEYENNE – The contact tracing being done at the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department doesn’t require much gear.
“It’s pretty simple,” Kasey Mullins, the department’s nursing director, said in an interview. “It’s a telephone and a computer.”
Yet while it doesn’t require cutting-edge technology, contact tracing – the process of identifying people who have come in close contact with a positive case of COVID-19 – has proven useful in Laramie County, at times helping against the unpredictable nature of the virus.
The collaborative effort between the Wyoming Department of Health and county health offices on contact tracing has reached nearly every corner of the state. As of Tuesday, 97% of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wyoming have included follow-up contact tracing, according to state Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti.
In Laramie County, the local health department started its contact tracing program in mid-March, shortly after the virus’s official arrival in Wyoming. Twelve county nurses were trained by the state health department’s epidemiology team, which has done tracing for other diseases for several years.
For the nurses in Laramie County, the actual process then began by calling people who had already tested positive for COVID-19.
“We get all of their contacts, who they live with, where they work, where they’ve been out in the community and get ahold of any of their close contacts,” said nurse Terry Thayn, who also manages maternal and child health for the county.
The nursing team estimated contact tracing requires calling an average of seven to 10 people. From there, they determine who was in close contact, meaning within 6 feet for more than 10 minutes, with a positive case.
People deemed as “close contacts” are then ordered to quarantine for 14 days from the last day of contact. Bethann Miller, a department nurse on the adult health team, said the 14-day incubation period is necessary to eliminate the risk of further spread.
“At any point in time in that window, they can start having symptoms. Like, I’ve had people that I’ve watched for almost the full 14 days, and then on day 12, they actually started having symptoms,” Miller said.
Miller, along with the other nurses, gives her contact information to those who receive a quarantine order, with the recommendation that they get tested if symptoms emerge.
As the coordinator of the effort, Mullins said the challenge in contact tracing for them has been “just getting individuals to understand why the orders are necessary, which, they’re necessary to prevent future spread in their communities.”
“When (people under quarantine) become symptomatic in that 14-day window, they’re at home,” Mullins said. “They’re not out exposing other individuals, so we’ve had great success with identifying them early on, which prevents the spread.”
Despite some success with contact tracing, Laramie County has added more than 20 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks. Kathy Emmons, executive director of the county health department, noted there has also been a corresponding rise in probable cases discovered locally by contact tracing over that period.
“We are concerned, especially when you can start to see the connections person to person,” Emmons said. “There’s people out there, and they’re not behaving.”
The ongoing pandemic has meant a lot of long days for the team at the county health building. The nurses, while working in teams to trace cases, have still had their usual responsibilities, such as providing maternal and child health services, running a family planning clinic and providing immunizations.
“We trace from eight o’clock in the morning to about seven o’clock at night, and the weekends have been full, eight-to-10-hour days,” Mullins said. “I don’t think the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department would be able to do the contact tracing without the strong nurses that are here.”