Trace against time: LSSND staff double as contact-tracers to help slow spread of COVID-19 in ND

The work of contact tracing is a bit like untangling a massive and intricate spider web.

One person testing positive to COVID-19 quickly fans out to members of that person’s immediate circle, and then spreads to all the assorted individuals who have been in contact with that person’s immediate circle.

Earlier this year, during the first wave of the pandemic, a group of LSSND team members spent their days, and many evenings, helping to untangle those webs of exposure. They worked as contact-tracing caseworkers, following up with people who had tested positive for exposure to the novel coronavirus, then tracing the possible trajectory of infection by tracking down all friends, family and work colleagues who had been in contact with the infected person.  Several members of our New American Services staff worked primarily with a segment of New American communities, using their language skills and cultural familiarity to trace COVID-19 spread among some of the hardest-to-reach members.

Hasta Basnet, an employment specialist in Refugee Resettlement, was one of the LSSND staffers involved in the project. Through a contract between LSSND and the State of North Dakota, he and several co-workers connected with members of the Bhutanese, Arabic, Kurdish, Spanish and Sudanese-speaking populations – especially those who the state had trouble tracking down because of limited contact information.

The caseworkers learned quickly that contact-tracing is important, if challenging, work.  It requires people skills, attention to detail, plenty of record-keeping, and a Sherlock Holmesian level of persistence in tracking down all possible vectors of the highly contagious virus.

“It spreads like wildfire. We were bombarded. May, June and some of April, we were really busy. We had to follow them seven days a week. We called them to survey late in the evening, so we would start later in the day and go until 8 or 9 in the evening.” – Hasta Basnet, contact-tracing caseworker at LSSND.

Typically, Hasta or one of his colleagues would be assigned a positive case, which had been reported to the state Health Department. They would contact the person with the positive test, advise them to self-isolate for 10 days and ask whether they had decided to get a test due to COVID-like symptoms or proximity to another COVID-positive person. If the person had symptoms, the caseworker would ask if they’d had any contact with others 48 hours before onset of those symptoms. The contact tracer would then get the names and numbers of those people, advise them to quarantine and refer them to where they could get free testing. Household members who had been in contact with the person were asked to follow another set of protocols.

The case worker might also need to contact the person’s employer to inform them of employees who may have had contact with COVID-19 and to advise those workers to quarantine as well.

Another responsibility was a follow-up survey, which helped collect vital data for the state Health Department.

Teamwork is essential key in tracking coronavirus

Hasta said the project would not have been possible without teamwork from the entire refugee resettlement team. While he and colleagues Raj Magar, Buddha Adhikari, Shawan Al Selim and Reggie Tarr focused on contact-tracing, other team mates stepped up to help them with their regular workloads.

It was an intense few months, but Hasta feels like their work did help slow infection rates.

After LSS contact-tracers handled roughly 160 cases in early summer, the outbreak seems to have quieted down in the New American communities they served. He also was pleased with how compliant people were when contacted by a caseworker.

“We did not go to their home. But we would tell people they had to isolate, be separate from their family, use their own bathroom, if possible. When we talked to them, we feel like they always were listening to us and following what we asked them to do.” – Hasta Basnet.

He believes it helped that the LSS caseworkers who contacted the New American populations spoke the same language as they did.

“Yes, definitely we made a difference,” says Hasta, adding that he hopes another flare-up doesn’t occur. “I hope we can all continue to stay safe and healthy.”

By Tammy Swift

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