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‘Disease Detectives’: How investigators work behind-the-scenes to track the virus

EL PASO, Texas -- The fight against Covid-19 has sent healthcare workers into battle against an enemy they cannot see. Fernando Gonzalez's job is to track that enemy, the virus, down.

"The main objective is to protect the individual and public health of our community and our region," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez is an epidemiologist with the City of El Paso's Department of Public Health. He is working as a contact tracer during the pandemic, where he works to uncover where an infection came from and who it might infect next.

"We gather the most detailed information on what's happening with the person who is at risk," Gonzalez said.

When a new Covid-19 case pops up, workers involved in contact tracing will contact the person who is infected. They will learn as much as they can about that person's life, who that person interacts with and the places that person has been.

The department can then isolate those who may be infected after exposure to the individual and get them tested.

"The tracing is critical provided you receive the information in an accurate way," said Dr. Armando Meza, an infectious disease expert with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso.

Dr. Meza says the data can help lead contact tracers to possible outbreaks before they begin.

"Once you know exactly what are the risk factors, then you plan an intervention," Dr. Meza said.

Dr. Meza says, on average, someone infected with COVID-19 will spread it to two people. Some people will not infect anyone, but others can spread it to many more. The tracing can prevent carriers from spreading the virus before they are aware they are infected.

The department says workers monitor those who test positive for 14 days, as well as those who come into contact with individuals who are infected and may be at high risk for infection themselves.

Gonzalez estimates more than 100 people are now involved in tracing in El Paso, including members of the El Paso Fire Department and medical students at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center.

"Staff has been growing accordingly to the number of cases and intensity of the disease," Gonzalez said.

One challenge in tracing? A lag in some test results from private labs.

A health worker who has had COVID-19, and wished to remain anonymous, told ABC-7 she did not hear from the health department for days after testing positive through a private lab.

"That call came a week later," she said.

City representatives could not confirm the reason for the patient's delay, but did confirm it can take several days to hear back from private labs about new cases.

"It was a little slow, but once I spoke to somebody, she was very helpful," the woman told ABC-7. "She talked to me every day and asked me about my symptoms, see how I was feeling for about a week."

The woman confirmed the department also contacted others she may have exposed.

"We offer all of this space, all of the opportunities for these persons to come to common ground and establish a place in which they feel comfortable," Gonzalez said.

The questions during interviews can get personal, as those who might be exposed question about their ability to keep working and how to keep their families safe.

The health department provides resources to answer some of these questions online. The department reminds individuals that the virus spreads between people who are in close contact with one another (about six feet), as well as through respiratory droplets that are produced when someone infected coughs or sneezes. You should stay six feet away from others even inside your own home if possible.

If you become infected, the department urges you to stay at home and avoid public areas and avoid coming into contact with others. You're also encouraged to wear a face mask and cover your coughs and sneezes.

The CDC also recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily.

"Nobody wants to receive a call or receive a visit from a healthcare professional who tells you you have a chronic disease or infectious disease," Gonzalez said.

It's a phone call that can change the life of someone who did not know they were exposed, but it's a conversation that could ultimately save another.

"The story of COVID-19 will be written after the fact," Dr. Meza said. "One of the things that we need to keep in mind is that pandemics are going to come back."

For now, an army of disease detectives is just trying to contain the virus, one interview at a time.

Coronavirus / Coronavirus Video / News / Top Stories / Video

Madeline Ottilie

Madeline Ottilie is a reporter on Good Morning El Paso and co-anchors ABC-7 at noon.

Comments

3 Comments

  1. They will be shooting at the virus! Lol. “There it is ! Shoot it Herbert!” Darn it! What does it look like? Just shoot hoss! I think it has horns!!!

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