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Contact tracing grows in importance, challenges

Kent County estimates volunteers are not able to reach about 40% of those in contact with someone with COVID-19.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As the state's economy reopens, contact testing becomes for difficult and more important. 

"Now with people being out and about more, having the ability to go to restaurants and things like that," said Brian Hartl, the Epidemiology Supervisor at Kent County Health Department, "contact tracing and quarantine becomes even more important."

Restaurants and businesses have announced temporary closures due to discovering staff or customers have COVID-19. In East Lansing, more than 100 people tested positive after visiting the same restaurant and bar. Hartl believes quick identification of the cases at the East Lansing bar helped bring down a spike in cases from last week. 

RELATED: Indoor bar service to cease in much of lower Michigan, Whitmer orders

"We identify the one case, identify their close contacts," said Hartl, "we want to contain them and not have them out and about potentially infecting other people."

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has previously said contact tracing is important to keeping people safe. She was hoping to move the state into phase 5 for economic progress by this weekend, but the recent spike in cases has stalled that plan. Grand Rapids area was also moved to medium-high risk.

"When that public health department calls you," said Governor Gretchen Whitmer to 13 ON YOUR SIDE last week, "I really hope they will answer the phone, because if you were at that restaurant, you would want to know so that you can isolate and keep yourself safe. That's what the public health tracing is all about."

Aside from challenges of people moving around more and not remaining socially distant, many are also not answering their phone when the health department calls. 

"I think we're kind of around 60% of who we are able to reach out to in terms of those close contacts," said Hartl, "So we do miss a fair amount of people when we're doing these calls."

The Health Department will leave a voicemail or text message if someone does not answer the phone. They may also send an email or letter by mail if they have that information. 

Your phone number or email address comes from the initial COVID-19 patient, who reported who he or she was around during suspected contagious period. 

Hartl mentioned a lack of trust in the government as another challenge to contact tracing. 

"We've had challenges all along with COVID-19," said Hartl, "Is it real? Is it is fake? Is a conspiracy? So, being a government entity, I think that plays into some of those challenges. People don't trust us. We do get challenged sometimes about why we're doing it. I would say that those interactions are relatively limited. But I think we're doing this for the benefit of our society."

The Health Department will first contact the COVID-19 patient, and ask them questions about who they have been in contact with and where they have been. Then, those numbers are transferred to volunteers. Those volunteers call those people to tell them they have been in contact with someone positive for the virus recently. If that person is symptomatic, they recommend isolation for 14 days. 

RELATED VIDEO: How volunteers can help Kent County track coronavirus cases

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