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Tarrant County health officials share how they're investigating the spread of COVID-19

Contact tracing is like detective work done through call centers.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Without a vaccine, contact tracing is likely the best way to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Russ Jones is Tarrant County’s chief epidemiologist. He says contract tracing or case investigations are lot like detective work.

“It all is, and the thing is, we’re doing it over the phone,” Jones said. “Where did you go? What do you do? Were you wearing a mask?”

Contact tracing works by finding out first who has the virus and who they may have recently been around and then getting those people tested and isolated.

Jones says they’ve used UNT Health Science Center students and are looking to hire more people with medical, technological or customer service backgrounds. The calls go off scripts and a list of questions. Jones says it usually begins by double-checking they’re speaking to the right person and then explaining the virus.

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Tarrant County’s contact tracers make up to 300 calls a day, and that number is going up as more people go out. Last week, the county got permission for commissioners to hire 56 new contact tracers.

The training includes a free online course from Johns Hopkins University that takes about four or five hours to complete.

One of the biggest obstacles of the job is getting people to pick up. Jones says many believe the calls are spam.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Not everyone wants to give out information.”

Back in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott set a goal of hiring 4,000 contact tracers statewide. According to a DSHS spokesperson, the state has hired 3,192 as of Sunday with 50 of those coming from Texas Workforce Commission hiring.

Symptoms matter in the search for who may have the virus, but Jones says they’ve also learned a lot of the spread comes from those without symptoms.

“You’re still doing your normal behavior. You feel fine. You’re talking to people,” Jones said. “You may be talking to them too close. That’s why social distancing is important all the time.”

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To figure out where people have been, they’ll ask people they call to check everything from credit card receipts to social media postings.

“You know what each other is doing, but you don’t know what someone sitting right next to you has been like and they may be infectious,” Jones said. “That is a problem.”

Jones says the health department has been close before to sharing outbreak locations with news outlets to try to track contacts, but they haven’t done that yet.

“You could be infecting someone else unknowingly,” he said.

Wearing masks and limiting contact are the main weapons against the virus for now.

“That’s the way we’re going to control it,” Jones said. “What we do protects our neighbor.”

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