AUSTIN (KXAN) — Health officials have been saying increased testing and contact tracing play important roles in fighting COVID-19. In Central Texas, you can help slow the spread of the virus by volunteering to contact trace.

“The whole idea is actually to prevent transmission and to stop these chains of transmission before they get out further into the community,” explained Darlene Bhavnani, Ph.D., MPH, Epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School.

Back in March, Bhavnani said they had only a handful of contact tracers, but she says that’s changed quickly.

“Last I heard, our volunteer pool was over 200 people,” she said.

According to UT Health Austin, having a medical background isn’t a requirement. But you need to be able to work at least 24 hours a week for at least four weeks.

Volunteers are expected to meet these expectations:

  • Can work remotely and has access to a computer and reliable internet connection
  • Have the ability to effectively communicate health information and provide excellent customer service
  • Can use cultural competencies when working with diverse populations
  • Have the ability to organize and document detailed case data
  • Are familiar with using a computer, internet, and other applications (Word, Excel, Microsoft Teams, etc.)
  • Can maintain confidentiality and complete HIPAA training requirements

Bhavnani said, “Really, what we’re looking for are patient sensitive, detail oriented, responsive and people who are good communicators and very well organized.”

How contact tracing works

According to health officials, contact tracing helps to get people into quarantine early.

“If we can get to them early and when they’re exposed to somebody, get them in for testing and get them to quarantine or isolate, then we’re stopping transmission,” Bhavnani explained.

UT Austin Junior Addison Allen is a volunteer contact tracer.

She founded a group called CLEAN, which stands for COVID-19 Longhorn Epidemiological Assistance Network. She said when the pandemic began, she wanted to somehow be part of the solution.

She said CLEAN volunteers have, so far, contributed about 500 hours of contact tracing.

“In a day, we’d probably call around 60 people who actually pick up,” Allen told KXAN.

The volunteers check in with people who have the coronavirus, see if they need anything like groceries and try to find out who may have gotten the virus from that person.

They ask about two days before the patient started showing symptoms and 10 days after.

“It’s basically trying to get them back into that mindset of what did you do before you started feeling sick?” Allen said.

Bhavnani said, “Our strategy so far has been to ask people to look at their calendars, look at their text messages, look at their emails, potentially even credit card statements that they went shopping.”

Allen said she likes being able to check on people who are self-isolating.

“It’s really scary, and so it’s really helpful to be able to tell them that it’s going to be okay and if they need anything, we’re here for them,” she said. “My favorite part is probably just being able to talk to people on the phone and show them that they’re not alone when they feel really alone right now.”

Bhavnani said people in self-isolation are COVID-positive patients who shouldn’t interact with anyone. She said it’s recommended that that person stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom than their family members who live in the same home.

Self-quarantine is for people who came in contact with people who tested positive. If you’re self-quarantining, Bhavnani said, you should stay home, but if you must go out, you should wear a mask.

You can find more information about contact trace volunteering here.