Health Departments Rely On Contact Tracing To Track COVID-19 Outbreaks

Jul 10, 2020

When the state began to reopen at the beginning of June, cases of COVID-19 began to creep back up with outbreaks linked to businesses and large gatherings.

One of those outbreaks is tied to popular East Lansing bar, Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub. As of Tuesday, the Ingham County Health Department has found over 170 total cases connected to the bar. 32 of them are secondary, meaning people who didn’t go to Harper’s themselves but got sick from someone who did.


Health officials are tracking the spread of the virus when it comes to these outbreaks to get ahead of them and hopefully stop them.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke to Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail about contact tracing.

Interview Highlights

On How Her Department Tracked The Outbreak At Harper’s

We were actually notified by a neighboring health department of two positive cases on the 18th of June. Both of them had been to Harper's on different days. One of them complained about the lack of mask wearing in the crowds and the lack of social distancing. So, that caused us to do a complaint investigation from there and also keep an eye on those two cases and then contact tracing from there.

On How Her Department Uses Contact Tracing To Stop The Spread Of The Virus

We find out when your symptoms started, and we go back 48 hours from that. So, from the time you were 48 hours before symptoms until the time you got tested or got symptomatic and stayed home, who have you been in contact with. And then we start calling those people.

On What A Call From A Contact Tracer Might Sound Like

You might get called from a number that you don't know or it might say “Unknown.” And so, you would expect us to leave a voicemail that says, "This is the Ingham County Health Department. We need you to call us as soon as possible related to a potential exposure." Something like that. We won't disclose a whole lot of information at that point in time. Now, to the extent that people's voicemail boxes are full, that can be a problem. So try to make sure your voicemail box is not full. I try to get my staff to use "Unknown." You get a call from an unknown number; you might want to answer it.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: When the state began to reopen at the beginning of June, cases of COVID-19 began to creep back up, with outbreaks linked to businesses and large gatherings.

One of those outbreaks is tied to popular East Lansing bar, Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub. As of Tuesday, the Ingham County Health Department has found over 170 total cases connected to the bar. 32 of them are secondary, meaning people who didn’t go to Harper’s themselves but got sick from someone who did.

Health officials are tracking the spread of the virus when it comes to these outbreaks to get ahead of them and hopefully stop them.

To learn more about this process, we’re joined by Ingham County Health Officer, Linda Vail. Thank you for being here.

Linda Vail: Thank you Sophia.

Sophia Saliby: Looking at the Harper’s outbreak as an example, how did you and your staff trace the spread of the virus from East Lansing and Ingham County to cities like Detroit and 16 counties across the state?

Vail: It's basically the magic of contact tracing. So, we were actually notified by a neighboring health department of two positive cases on the 18th of June. Both of them had been to Harper's on different days.

One of them complained about the lack of mask wearing in the crowds and the lack of social distancing. So, that caused us to do a complaint investigation from there and also keep an eye on those two cases, and then contact tracing from there.

Saliby: What does that contact tracing look like?

Vail: So, what we do is we get ahold of those two people, and we find out from them, who were you in close contact with. So, we find out when your symptoms started, and we go back 48 hours from that. So, from the time you were 48 hours before symptoms until the time you got tested or got symptomatic and stayed home, who have you been in contact with. And then we start calling those people.

Saliby: How do you coordinate with state and other local health departments when it comes to contact tracing?

Vail: So, as soon as we get hold of somebody that is a contact just as this other local health department got in touch with us, as soon as we get a hold of somebody who's a contact, and we find out that that case may live in a different county, then we're in contact with that county health department. And they take over the contact tracing for that individual.

In this case, because it was tied to an East Lansing facility and the first two cases were not residents of our county, we needed to investigate the facility. So we went out to the facility. It wasn't until there were cases identified in our county that we were directly doing the contact tracing related to individuals in our county.

Saliby: How many contact tracers are currently working in Ingham County?

Vail: Oh, my goodness. I couldn't tell you right now. We've had as many as 25 or so, but some of our staff were basically redirected to that while we were in closure mode.

We also use the state of Michigan Salesforce team to help us with the contact tracing, and I don't know what those kinds of numbers are, but it can be a pretty sizable number. And we have the ability to kind of expand that and contract that, as we have for a time, we had very few cases, and then we had a whole bunch again.

And so, as that goes on, and then we're able to do some expanding and contracting. So, at this very moment, it's hard for me to tell you an answer to that.

Saliby: If someone gets a call from a contact tracer, what will that call sound like? What can you expect?

Vail: So, there's a few things you can expect. One is you might get called from a number that you don't know or it might say “Unknown.” And so, you would expect us to leave a voicemail that says, "This is the Ingham County Health Department. We need you to call us as soon as possible related to a potential exposure." Something like that. We won't disclose a whole lot of information at that point in time.

Now, to the extent that people's voicemail boxes are full, that can be a problem. So try to make sure your voicemail box is not full.

I try to get my staff to use "Unknown." You get a call from an unknown number; you might want to answer it. We are trying to work with Verizon and should soon have our outgoing Caller ID say, "Ingham County Health Department." Well, apparently, we're the first ones to have asked.

Saliby: It seems like it's only going to get harder for you and your staff as people feel more comfortable being out more and possibly spreading the virus to more than one place. How are you preparing for that eventuality?

Vail: Basically, we just keep our contact tracers going. We try to respond and get a circle around things very quickly. As things expand to the point that like, we can't do this all, we use the other sources that we have like the state and their teams. We have the advantage of an excellent state epidemiologist that works with us as well, helping us create reports. It's just a lot of work and a lot of recalling.

One of the other things that happens that makes it easier as you go along [is that] after that first contact, we will text people. We would never on an original contact because there's the chance that you're calling the wrong person, [and then] leave anything of that sort. But, once we've been in contact with somebody we can text as well.

Saliby: Linda Vail is the Ingham County Health Officer. Thank you for joining me.

Vail: Thank you.