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CALDWELL — In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest District Health hired an additional 14 people in late June and early July to help with contact tracing — an important step in helping to mitigate the virus's spread.

Contact tracing is the practice of tracking down a person's steps in the week or so before they tested positive, and then reaching out to other people with whom they'd had contact, to promote self-isolation and other practices to prevent the virus from spreading further. 

Ricky Bowman, Southwest District Health's program manager, said the group was hired using grant funding from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, along with CARES Act funds. Initially, the district relied on its already existing staff members to fill the contact tracing team. But due to the seriousness of the virus, it was necessary to recruit extra, outside personnel to get a handle on things.

"It became very apparent that we needed to go external," Bowman added. 

Rachel Phinney, an epidemiologist with the district, was one of those recent hires.

Phinney, who graduated from Boise State University in May with a master's in health sciences, said her daily responsibilities include contacting, via a phone call or text, any individual who receives a positive coronavirus result within the district — which encompasses Canyon, Gem, Payette, Washington, Adams and Owyhee counties — and providing guidance on isolation practices in order to protect themselves and others. The contact tracing team will continue to monitor the patient throughout the process.

Phinney said investigators also try to see if the person can pinpoint exactly where they might have contracted the disease, as well as gathering the contact information for anyone that person might have come in contact with while contagious. They then will call the individuals who could have been exposed, so those people can quarantine and monitor any symptoms during that period. This enables the district to identify potential trends as well, allowing officials, such as board of health members, to make better public health decisions.

"COVID is still such a new thing, and there are so many unknowns, so our main objective is just to reach out to these people as soon as we possibly can and educate them," she added. "We want to give them the information they need to make an informed decision about their health and their family's health, as well as the people they also may have exposed."

The contact tracing team has 15 staff members, who reach out to roughly 70 contacts per day and 390 per week.

Phinney said each county in the district has at least one investigator assigned to it to make these contacts. However, for Canyon County, it's kind of an "all hands on deck situation," due to its size and the volume of positive cases there, she added. Investigators also work on specific task forces focused on different congregate living situations and priority populations, such as jails and prisons, long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, schools and businesses.

Phinney said she primarily focuses on Canyon County, as does Andy Nutting. Both belong to the long-term care facilities task force.

Nutting, a COVID-19 investigator, started at the health district about the same time as Phinney, and also graduated from Boise State with a master's in health sciences this May.

Like Phinney, Nutting said he believes their most important role as investigators is to "arm people with knowledge," particularly since the state saw a large surge in cases within the district, primarily Canyon County, which had the highest infection rate in Idaho. 

"Contact tracing just really helps us better understand how and where the virus is spreading in the community, so that we can take action to prevent similar trends in the future," Phinney said. "It's very rewarding to be able to help people and provide that education that they may not have received otherwise."

Some of the trends the pair has identified are household transmissions and unknown exposure, both of which have contributed to the growing number of cases in the district, as well as the state. 

Initially, Nutting said a portion of the community wasn't all that responsive to these kinds of cold calls. Some people were confused as to why they were being contacted; others hadn't even heard of the health district.

"That definitely created some barriers and challenges early on," he added. 

But as time has progressed, Nutting said people are much more receptive and understanding now.

The pair said they were actually surprised at how kind folks have been overall.

"I came into this job a little fearful that people were going to get mad at me when I called them and they weren't going to want to give me information," Phinney said. "However, I've been pleasantly surprised at how nice most people are and how willing they are to provide us with the information that we ask for."

Olivia Heersink is the Canyon County public safety reporter. You can reach her at oheersink@idahopress.com, or by calling 208-465-8178. Follow her on Twitter @heersinkolivia

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