As positive cases of the COVID-19 virus continue to rise in Montgomery County, employees at the Montgomery County Health Department are keeping busy reaching out to those who have tested positive, but also those they have been in contact with.
“Contact tracing is important to educate those who have possibly been exposed to the virus so they do not potentially expose others,” said Health Department Administrator Hugh Satterlee.
When an individual in Montgomery County tests positive, the health department calls them to collect information about who they have been in close contact with for two days before they began feeling ill. In the case of an asymptomatic positive test, the health department will ask for close contacts for two days before a positive test, possibly longer.
Satterlee said that “close contact,” constitutes someone they have been within six feet of for more than ten to 15 minutes. He added that even if someone is wearing a mask during the contact, they may have been exposed.
Once the health department collects the contact information, they begin to contact those people who may have been exposed to the virus. Satterlee said they have an approved script they read from, and never identify who has tested positive for the virus, as that would be a HIPAA violation.
He added his staff will never ask for bank account information or a social security number, and cautioned residents about scammers looking to profit during the pandemic. Currently, the health department has about ten employees working on contact tracing, and have applied for a federal grant through the state of Illinois to help offset the added expenses.
Satterlee said that employees will be contacting people through cell phones, and it may not register as a call from the Montgomery County Health Department. However, anyone calling will identify themselves first, and anyone who is unsure may hang up that call and contact the Montgomery County Health Department at 217-532-2001 during business hours and verify that person is working on contact tracing.
“We want to do everything we can so that people feel secure in giving out information,” said Satterlee.
Once they contact a person, they encourage them to get tested for the COVID-19 virus. Satterlee said they cannot force someone to get tested for it, but they highly recommend it, as well as staying home for 14 days to minimize exposure to others.
At this time, they are only doing contact tracing for contacts in Montgomery County, as the state has purchased special software for contact tracing that allows other county health departments to contact trace. For example, someone that lives in Hillsboro but works in Springfield might have exposed some of their co-workers. The Montgomery County Health Department would enter that contact information, but those people would be contacted by the Sangamon County Health Department.
That system only works in the state of Illinois. In cases where local residents may have been exposed out-of-state, the local health department would likely reach out to those health departments or individuals.
Satterlee said one of the biggest factors in contact tracing is a person’s willingness to be truthful to the places he or she has been.
Currently, testing for the virus is available in Montgomery County at Hillsboro Area Hospital, Litchfield Family Practice Center and HSHS St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield. Results from those locations typically take 24 to 72 hours to return. Testing is also available out of county and in some pharmacies.
As the virus numbers continue to climb in the county, Satterlee encourages residents to wash their hands, don’t touch their faces, wear a mask when possible and continue to social distance.
“This could go on for a very long time,” he said.