State officials remind citizens to wear masks, answer calls from contact tracers in continued fight against coronavirus

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Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health
David Gray | The News

BATON ROUGE, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – The lack of mask wearing and response to contact tracers are becoming “concerning” trends to state officials who warned Louisiana residents there “are still risks” of contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health, made pleas to the public during a COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, urging people to avoid becoming too lax in the state’s continued fight against the new disease.

“We need to get everybody grounded again in the reality of the situation, which is that we still have a public health emergency,” Edwards said.

During the briefing, Edwards said contact tracers are “making a concerted effort” to reach people who tested positive for the coronavirus or those who may have come into “close contact” with someone who did, but many of those phone calls are going unanswered.

From four call centers across the state, contact tracers have reached out to 97 percent of those with positive cases and 95 percent of those who came into “close contact” with a COVID-19 positive person, Edwards said.

However, only around half have answered the phone, though Edwards said there could be a multitude of reasons for that.

“In many cases, people are simply missing the call or I suspect they don’t recognize the number and just choose not to answer,” he said. “As a reminder, the number is 877-766-2130. If it comes up on your phone, please answer. If you miss it, all you have to do is call it back.”

Contact tracing, a form of investigative healthcare in which a caller tries to determine where a COVID-19 positive person may be spreading the disease, is one of the cornerstones of the state’s reopening plan, one that was vetted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Contact tracing and a surge in testing capacity are the main ways officials hope to identify COVID-19 “hotspots” as the state continues to loosen business restrictions and other activities.

In contact tracing, trained public health professionals (contact tracers) work with patients to help them recall everyone they’ve had “close contact” with during the time they may have been infectious. The tracers then warn these exposed individuals (contacts) of their potential exposure “as rapidly and sensitively as possible.”

Contacts are provided with information to understand their risk and are encouraged to monitor themselves for illness. In most cases, the contacts are advised to self-quarantine for 14 days, regardless if they’re showing symptoms or not.

In early May, the Louisiana Department of Health signed a contract with Accenture and Salesforce to manage Louisiana’s contact tracing process, which began in earnest when the state moved into Phase One of reopening on May 15.

According to Billioux, one of the problems contact tracers keep running into is getting “adequate contact information.”

“That’s concerning to us,” he said. “If we can’t reach them up front, that’s a problem.”

There also continue to be critics of the contact tracing process who claim it is an invasion of privacy. Health officials have said from the beginning that contact tracing is a process that has been utilized “for decades” against other diseases, such as measles, and is treated with sensitivity.

Billioux reiterated that stance on Wednesday, saying that phone calls from contact tracers are “a private conversation” that is intended to give the recipient information about managing the disease, especially those who need assistance to self-quarantine. Though people are not required to answer a contact tracer, Edwards has described it as “being a good neighbor.” 

While healthcare providers will inform their patients if they’ve tested COVID-19 positive, Billioux said providers “may not have time or knowledge to help that person be successful.” He noted that contact tracers have served 466 people with resources for staying at home, with the majority needing cleaning supplies and masks.

“Answering the phone is not only critical to helping the state, it also helps you because you’re gonna get more information that’s helpful to you and access to resources to help serve you as you stay at home,” he said.

Along with the lack of response to contact tracers, Billioux said he and health officials across the state have noticed people out in public without masks. He cited recent data suggesting that about one-third of people are wearing face masks in public.

“What we hear over and over again is really inconsistent mask wearing, if not worse,” he said.

The state is not requiring residents to wear masks in public, though employees who come into direct contact with the public are required to wear them. However, Edwards has continued to urge residents to wear masks and follow other safety protocols such as washing hands, maintaining social distance, and practicing good hygiene.

“It’s extremely important to note that we just can’t get complacent,” Edwards said. “This is perhaps just part of what may come natural when you ease restrictions.

“If the problem was gone, we wouldn’t ease restrictions — we would remove restrictions. If we let our guard down, we can easily see those cases start to rise and then we have to entertain additional measures.”

David Gray | The News

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