EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written in response to reader-submitted questions through Open Source, a platform where readers can ask Richland Source’s newsroom to investigate a question.
MANSFIELD ─ We have lived with the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year. It has been so long that people have started wondering if health departments in Richland County maintain their practices, such as contact tracing.
A reader recently asked Richland Source the following questions through its Open Source platform:
"Is Richland County doing contact tracing for the virus? If not, how much was done and when did it stop? If so, what are the details of how it works? How many staff members were hired to do it?"
In short, yes, Richland County is doing contact tracing because people still test positive every day. But the way health departments do it has changed a little since the beginning.
Emily Leedy, epidemiologist for Richland Public Health, said the agency now focuses on contact tracing people in the same household because most transmissions happen within the home.
She said public health nursing staff members will call all positive cases and gather information about anyone else living in the same house, including if they are symptomatic. The staff would recommend those people to get a test and quarantine if they start showing symptoms.
As for children, Leedy said the agency asks where they go to school and sends out notifications, making sure the schools are aware of those students’ return dates.
Leedy also said staff members will ask people who tested positive to contact those they have had close contact but do not live with, which is “contact tracing by proxy.” Those who have been exposed should quarantine themselves as well.
When the pandemic arrived in Ohio last March, Leedy said the health department reached out to a positive case’s every close contact by phone, no matter if they live in the same household or not. At one point, Richland Public Health had almost 30 volunteers from different agencies to do contact tracing along with its nursing staff. It also utilized 2-1-1 to help with the work.
But the workforce could not keep up with the rising case numbers last year. Leedy said in November, Richland County started to focus on household contact instead, based on the guidance of prioritization from the Ohio Health Department.
Contact tracing has helped stop the pandemic from spreading even further, Leedy said. For example, if a parent tests positive, the children have to be quarantined. They might develop symptoms and become sick later, but because they had not been at school, they would not spread the virus to other people.
Shelby City Health Department has been doing contact tracing with all positive cases who are Shelby residents. The agency follows the same guidelines and practices of Richland Public Health. The difference is Tiffiny Ellenberger, nursing director and educator, is the only one who is doing it.
“Every day, I called them to ask what their temperature was. Morning and evening. Are they exhibiting any COVID-like symptoms? Hours and hours,” Ellenberger said of the work when the pandemic just started.
She tested positive at the end of October and ended up staying at a hospital for a week. She returned to work only a few days after getting out of the hospital.
Ellenberger said it has been a tough year for everyone, especially for those who lost family members. She hoped she will see the light at the end of the tunnel soon.
More information about contact tracing can be found at the Ohio Health Department’s Contact Tracing Prep List.