South Carolinians are asking what they can to do stop the spread of COVID-19. Our response – answer the call. If you receive a call from 803-529-1551, answer. Answering will keep your loved ones and community safe through a process called contact tracing. All information collected by DHEC’s trained contact tracers is voluntary, confidential and over the phone.
What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing, a disease control measure utilized by public health officials worldwide for many decades, is a key component of DHEC’s strategy for preventing further spread of communicable disease within a community. The mission of contact tracing is to ensure that people who are exposed to a contagious person are provided education regarding the next steps and how to seek testing if indicated.
Contact tracers are hired and trained to gather information on the spread of the infection. Your participation is voluntary and confidential.
How is DHEC using contact tracing to help stop the spread of COVID-19?
Contact tracing isn't new to DHEC. During normal operations, we have approximately 20 contact tracers who perform this methodology to help limit the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis. Our infectious disease experts investigate hundreds of disease outbreaks each year.
DHEC has been conducting contact tracing for COVID-19 cases since the first reports in the state. Contact tracing includes two components: case investigations and contact monitoring. Currently, DHEC has more than 700 individuals trained to perform case investigations across the state, supplemented by 230 active contact monitors. A total of 600 contact monitors have been trained to date and will be deployed as needed.
How does contact tracing work?
Public health staff attempt to notify all identified contacts of their potential exposure as rapidly as possible, while maintaining confidentiality.
Contacts are provided with education, information, and support to understand their risk as well as what they should do to separate (“quarantine”) themselves from others who have not had an exposure. They are given guidance on how to monitor themselves for illness, and they are informed that they could spread the infection to others even if they themselves do not feel ill. Contacts who develop symptoms are asked to promptly isolate themselves and notify our public health staff. Our staff promptly refer them to a testing location.
You will receive a call from 803-529-1551.
Privacy is a core principle upon which contact tracing is built. Information about the identity of the ill person is not shared with the contacts, nor is any information about contacts shared with other contacts. DHEC, as the state's public health authority, is very sensitive to the protection of personal and protected health information and is very accustomed to the strict control of such information. Providing information to DHEC is voluntary.
Why is contact tracing important?
Without contact tracing, there is significant risk of the uncontrolled spread of any infectious disease. In contact tracing, our public health staff work with people who have tested positive for an infectious disease. Our staff work with those who have tested positive to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close, prolonged contact with during the timeframe in which they were capable of spreading the germ. These people who have potentially been exposed to the ill person are known as contacts.
Who is a contact tracer?
Contact tracers are staff who are trained in proper protocol related to following up with contacts. One trained staff member can reach, on average, 10 to 15 contacts per day.
There are two trainings, both from professional public health institutions: (1) Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and (2) the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. We are thankful that both of these nonprofit organizations are offering the trainings at no charge during this public health emergency. DHEC worked with South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium (AHEC) to ensure that the training is custom tailored for use in South Carolina.
What is the current status of contact tracing in South Carolina?
Contact tracing as a means to control disease spread is very effective when there are a relatively small number of cases. We call this containment. However, when there is widespread community transmission, contact tracing is less effective in preventing spread. At that point, the work needed to combat this disease must take place at the population level, not the individual level. That means focusing on group settings and institutions where people congregate, such as nursing homes, correctional facilities, beaches, and certain businesses or other facilities. The intent is to prevent local outbreaks that can affect large groups of people.
DHEC recently implemented new patient management software that will expand our capacity to rapidly reach contacts, provide education on the importance of quarantine, and will allow us to monitor them during their period of quarantine for additional educational opportunities as needed. We have the ability to expand our personnel capacity as needed.
Is DHEC using a contact tracing app?
DHEC is not using a contact tracing app; we maintain our data separately, for privacy and data security purposes, from any technology that might be available to the general public. There are several publicly available apps for people to self-report illness, or choose to share the information with other people, but they are not for the purpose of allowing DHEC to perform contact tracing. Instead, they rely on the user to download the app, and they do not send any information to public health officials in South Carolina.
How can you learn more about COVID-19 and DHEC’s contact tracing efforts?
We are actively sharing information about our contact tracing efforts through multiple media interviews, news releases and a dedicated contract tracing webpage on our DHEC website to inform people of our activities surrounding this essential public health service.