Austin Public Health: Get tested for COVID-19, comply with contact tracers to help stop spread

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the rise in positive COVID-19 cases also comes an increased caseload for Austin Public Health’s contact tracers.

“Every positive case, we call,” said Flor Ayala-Hernandez, an epidemiologist who has been part of APH’s contact tracing program since the beginning of the pandemic.

That means asking patients about the symptoms they’re experiencing, where they think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and where they’ve gone since.

“We can find if they were exposing other people during the incubation period,” Ayala-Hernandez explained.

But she says there’s a big obstacle: Many people don’t want to share their experiences.

“Sometimes they don’t want to talk, or they don’t want to share information that can affect other persons,” she said.

Ayala-Hernandez says that’s because some people believe their employers will be notified or even immigration. But she says their contact tracing information is confidential and important.

“That’s the only way that we can find clusters or what is happening with the community. If people [are] not sharing this information with us, we are partially blinded,” Ayala-Hernandez said. “We need to know where cases are happening, so we can act proactively and try to avoid more spreading.”

That includes providing more resources in certain areas if needed or adjusting messaging campaigns.

APH is also urging more testing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and the delta variant.

On Wednesday, they announced they will reopen two neighborhood COVID-19 testing sites: George Morales Dove Springs Recreation Center and St. Johns Testing Site.

“With the presence of the Delta variant, access to free testing will be an important tool to catch disease early and guide our other efforts – including vaccination, case investigation, and more,” wrote APH Interim Director Adrienne Sturrup in a press release.

APH says it had about 50 contact tracers during the peak of the pandemic in January. They say with the decrease in cases since then, the agency transitioned to 12 case investigators. They tell KXAN they’ll continue to evaluate the needs of the team and can expand again as needed.

It’s something Frank Fuentes, chair of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, says they might restart, too.

“We will plant roses on the corner of Colorado and Third Street if we need to, if we know that that will work,” he said.

The trade organization has been trying to curb the spread of COVID-19 within the industry for more than a year through posters, videos, COVID-19 testing sites and PPE distributions.

“Imagine wearing a mask in the heat. Well, we were doing that for the citizens. Filling in the potholes. We were literally serving the community, we never backed away from it,” Fuentes said.

Last year, University of Texas researchers found construction workers were more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

Fuentes hopes they are ahead of the spread. They’ve been holding vaccine clinics for over three months now, with 27 just last month.

“We’ll do anything that works, because these are the folks that are the most vulnerable… the folks that are on the front line,” Fuentes said. “And we will never turn our backs to them.”

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