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Phone tag and evasive answers: Contact tracers face roadblocks getting answers to COVID-19’s spread

Health officials say a growing number of people are not telling them where they work or who they’ve been around
Published: Jul. 15, 2020 at 5:55 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - As the number of positive coronavirus cases remains high, contact tracers are working quickly to track the spread of the virus. But those tracers have started encountering problems getting patient information.

When a phone rings, instinct says answer it or at least look to see who’s calling. And health officials say more and more people are ignoring that very important call.

“We do play a bit of phone tag or people just don’t call back because we are public health and they may not want to answer the questions,” Brown County Public Health nurse Pam Waise, interim branch director for patient surveillance, said.

And when they do answer, and a contact tracer is on the other end, health officials say a growing number of people are not telling them where they work or who they’ve been around.

“A lot more people are resistant to even letting us let their employer know or letting public health know or even being fully truthful about who they live with, their roommates or spouses or whatever that may be,” Dr. Ashok Rai, Prevea president/CEO, said.

Public health officials say they do have to get permission to tell an employer or others a patient’s name, but not getting that does not stop the tracing.

“We still have an obligation to call the employer or the business or another contact and just share with them you have been identified as a contact,” Waise explained.

In that case, employers would have to figure out an identity or possible employee contact.

So why the lack of cooperation?

Waise said, “I think there’s hesitancy because there’s fear that it would be punitive, that they did something wrong. There’s also hesitation because for some individuals this is their livelihood.”

“We’re trying to control the breakout, and everybody needs to do their part,” Dr. Rai said.

Health officials say tracers are working hard to gain trust and build relationships with people they call and want people to understand that giving specific information will help slow the virus’s spread and benefit the entire community.

“Contact tracing, just like masking, is a pro-business strategy -- to keep people safe and keep numbers controllable as far as our positivity and infection is controlled, so the economy can keep going,” Dr. Rai said.

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