September 16, 2020

Q&A with a veteran contact tracer working to stop the spread of COVID-19

Damian Plaza, who has worked in the field of HIV prevention for more than 30 years, is currently working as a contact tracer. He is an Investigator for the Communicable Disease Program within the city of Chicago and is currently working with contact tracing, which seeks to stop community transmission of a disease or virus, by contacting people who test positive and inquiring who they have been in contact with, in ways that might transmit the virus or disease. 

For the new coronavirus (COVID-19), that means investigators like Damian call individuals who test positive, acquire the names and numbers of those they’ve been in close contact with without a mask for 30 minutes but within 6 feet, and then contact those people to let them know they might have COVID-19 and should quarantine for 14 days. If done right, contact tracing can help stop the spread of COVID-19 by having COVID-positive individuals quarantine before they encounter more people. 

Damian joined AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC) over lunch a few months ago to talk about contact tracing, quarantining and other COVID-19 safety measures. Here is some of that conversation: 

The HIV sector has done contact tracing for years. How did your work in the HIV sector prepare you and others for COVID-19 contract tracing? 

“Giving people their results of being infected with the HIV virus was not an easy one. Especially since it was such a personal thing for many, and to give out names of their contacts could mean targeting them as the one who gave their name out. But we always strive for privacy and never gave out the name of the person who named them. This was extremely important to reiterate to clients and patients.  

Being able to do this with discreetness and confidence, would help me years later to be able to actually make contact tracing for COVID-19 more effective.  Staying structured and maintaining that framework helps me be effective and being trained also helps.” 

Can you give an example of what contact tracing looks like? 

“When this first started, one of the City of Chicago’s public schools was hit with COVID. Maybe 10 people at first. We noticed the pattern as it started growing bigger and bigger. We had the school give us a list of parents of the COVID-positive students, of their teachers and anybody living with them. We would call each.  

For example, if I was speaking to a mother with two children, one of which was COVID-positive, I’d call the mother and say one of your children is COVID-positive. The other child must be separated and quarantined for 14 days. If by chance, the other child does show they are positive, they will also become a case and we would then have to get in contact with everyone who was connected to that child and let them know they need to quarantine.” 

How do you quarantine if you live in a household with others? 

“As long as you have a bathroom and your own little space, you should be okay if you need to isolate. If you only have one bathroom, make sure to disinfect after each person uses it. You usually only have one kitchen. If someone could prepare the food and bring it to the door of the person quarantining, that’s good.” 

How long should you quarantine if you are asymptomatic? At what point do you know you’ve recovered? 

“Usually, we say once you’ve gotten two negative tests you are okay. One of the patients that I was working with tested positive three times and said, ‘well I don’t know what to do.’ I said just keep testing. He tested again. He was negative. I said okay, you have one negative, your job says you need two negatives. He took another test two days later; he was negative and went back to work.” 

Should children quarantine? 

“Yes. Usually the mother or the father is going to have to stay with the child away from other family members. We still have (children) isolate. We don’t however recommend masks for babies because a baby can’t speak and tell you if they can’t breathe.” 

How helpful are rubber gloves when you go outside? 

“What happens when you’re using gloves is sometimes you forget and touch your face, or some people get in their cars and start driving with the gloves on. You can’t use gloves in a store touching everything, come back, get in your car and use the same gloves. It doesn’t work that way. If you touch something that had COVID, you just brought it back into your car. If you’re going to use gloves, use them and dispose of them.” 

Where should we be getting our information to stay informed about COVID-19 

“Don’t always listen to social media. Look at the truth. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not going to give you things that are not real. Try to go with that. If you are going to go through any guidelines, go through the CDC website or if you are in Chicago, the city of Chicago’s website.”  

Want to learn more? John Hopkins University & Medicine has a free, six-hour course on contact tracing that you can take today, here. 

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in the spring of 2020, and all information presented was accurate at the time of the interview. For up-to-date information on the best practices for COVID-19, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

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