Contact tracing is a process used by the St. Mary’s County Health Department to identify people who came in close contact with an individual testing positive for COVID-19, and Naval Air station Patuxent River personnel — military, civilian or contractor — who receive a call from the county must cooperate with health officials by answering their questions, according to health officials.

“Contact tracing helps slow the transmission of the virus by quickly identifying and informing people they’ve been exposed and may be infected and contagious, so they can take steps to stay home and not infect others,” said Terry Prochnow, director of Public Health Preparedness and Response with the St. Mary’s County Health Department.

Following an interview with an infected person, SMCHD contact tracers will phone others identified as coming in close contact with that person to ask follow-up questions and provide guidance regarding how to quarantine and monitor themselves for symptoms.

“The contact tracers are trying to reach those who should be in isolation or quarantine, and to assist them with challenges that make quarantine difficult,” said Dr. Patricia Bray, Pax River’s public health emergency officer. “Quarantine and isolation are legal orders delegated to the county public health officer. Public health workers strive for voluntary cooperation in contact tracing and quarantine, but residents should be aware there is also a legal obligation to participate in health investigations and follow public health orders.”

Cooperation is not an operational security violation

Military and county contact tracers report their phone calls are frequently not answered and Bray wants to allay Pax River employees’ fears about violating operational security.

“Recently, the county health department was trying unsuccessfully to contact two Pax personnel [who had been in close contact with an infected person] but they didn’t want to answer the calls over concerns they may be violating safety measures,” Bray said. “Because their close contacts at work had already been assessed by Navy personnel, the individuals thought the contact tracing was complete, not realizing the county completes contact tracing relevant to their lives at home. The county was on the verge of sending the sheriff to their homes, but first requested intervention from the Naval Health Clinic. Once the misunderstanding was resolved, the necessary information was exchanged and visits from the sheriff were avoided.”

The message health professionals would like to spread widely, Bray said, is “Please answer the calls and assist tracers with interrupting the transmission of COVID-19.”

What contact tracers will, and will not, ask

Maryland currently has more than 1,350 contract tracers working through the Maryland Health Department and the 24 local health departments to conduct interviews. The program has the capacity to track 1,000 cases and up to 10,000 contacts daily, according the Maryland.gov website.

“We have a compassionate and trained group here [in St. Mary’s County] who contact trace all day long, every weekend, and every holiday,” Prochnow noted. “Once contacts are identified, we’ll call them as soon as we can to let them know they’ve been exposed sometime between 48-72 hours, and tell them they need to quarantine. We’re stopping them from going out for the next 14 days and potentially infecting other people.”

Contact tracers will never ask for social security numbers, financial or bank account information, passwords, credit card details, or donations. They will not attempt to sell you anything. In fact, unless the infectious individual has approved it, tracers will not reveal their name as the person who tested positive.

“They will ask your name and date of birth because some people have the same name and we need to verify that we’re speaking to the correct individual,” Prochnow said. “They will request your address and whether you live in a house or an apartment and what your living situation is — such as who else is living in the house and their ages.”

Tracers will also ask where you work and what you do, but nothing specific enough to concern individuals working in high-security positions. And, operating under Code of Maryland Regulations, information obtained during contact tracing interviews remains confidential and is not shared, in strict adherence to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The importance of contact tracing

The county and the base work closely together, with Pax River representatives attending weekly Emergency Support Function for Public Health and Medical Services meetings and participating in the Local Health Alert Network. Information is constantly being shared and updated.

“Most people working on base live in the county and should cooperate with county health investigators regarding close contacts in the community — kids in school, church activities, participation in sports,” Bray said.

“We have a data base from contact tracing put in place so we can see all of it and connect the dots,” Prochnow added. “It helps us to see what’s happening and lets us look at the bigger picture.”

Number of cases rising; vigilance required

In an email received from the county Nov. 16, the COVID-19 new case rate per 100,000 increased 57% in the past seven days, and 157 new cases were reported among residents. Health officials only expect it to worsen as the holidays approach and flu season is underway.

Both Bray and Prochnow point out the fact that people have the tendency to let their guard down around coworkers and family members, but warn they shouldn’t.

“Transmission is known to occur in the workplace, and one recommended intervention is to telework as much as possible,” Bray added. “If you must go to work, a key protection is keeping your distance from coworkers. There is additional risk when eating together, driving in cars, or gathering in spaces not well ventilated. Just assume people have the virus, keep your distance whenever possible, and wear your mask.”

COVID spread is often seen among individuals who attend gatherings, both large and small, particularly when food is served.

“Moving forward into holiday season, the best way to prevent that is to avoid travel and social gatherings,” Prochnow recommended. “If you must gather, keep events to a small number and only to people you know where they’ve been. Make sure to keep your social distance, wear your face covering, wash your hands often ... If you’re sick, stay home, even if it’s just a cough or headache.”

COVID-19 testing available through health department

The St. Mary’s County Health Department provides COVID-19 testing, without an appointment, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday in Leonardtown and Lexington Park. SMCHD patients will receive notice of COVID-19 test results via phone call, positive or negative. Test results may also be accessed online by individuals who have insurance at www.mdlab.com. Uninsured patients can request printed copies of test results from SMCHD by phone or email.

Visit www.smchd.org/covid-19-testing for more information.

For local updates and information on prevention, symptoms, testing, and more, visit www.smchd.org/coronavirus or call SMCHD at 301-475-4330.