Shasta County’s new COVID-19 menace: Sufferers towards contact-tracing

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Shasta County's new COVID-19 threat: Patients against contact-tracing

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Shasta County employs dozens of people who work to trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19, according to public health officials.

Redding Record Searchlight

Some Shasta County coronavirus patients are resistant and even hostile to the public health employees trying to identify their contacts to stop the spread of COVID-19 — a growing problem that “prevents us from helping that person protect the people they’ve been around,” the county’s public health officer said.

Dr. Karen Ramstrom, Shasta County’s public health officer, said she’s not sure why more people are objecting to contact tracing, the industry term for tracking down people who may have been exposed to an infected person so they can be warned.

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Dr. Karen Ramstrom, health officer for Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, answers a question during a COVID-19 press conference held by the agency on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Photo: Matthew Brannon/Record Searchlight)

But the work public health employees do every day to try to prevent spread — while being abused by some patients — “breaks my heart, actually, every day,” Ramstrom said.

“Certainly, some individuals appreciate that, and others are actually hostile to them,” she said.  “Sometimes people don’t give up that information.”

Some Shasta County residents are notoriously wary of government, and waning trust in public response to the pandemic is a well-documented phenomenon nationally. In some areas, public health employees have even been threatened while trying to trace contacts, NPR reports, and other jurisdictions have also complained about non-compliance. 

At the same time, experts say robust contact-tracing has been the key to the pandemic’s relatively minimal presence in countries like South Korea.

Shasta County has had 339 confirmed cases of the virus and eight deaths, with a tie for the most positive tests in a single day — 16 — on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Modoc County had its own grim milestone Tuesday: its first two confirmed coronavirus cases after being the only county in California without a known infection. 

Ramstrom said it could just be pandemic fatigue or the perception that a person will be judged by public health staff for not taking precautions. But county staffers try to be “respectful and compassionate,” Ramstrom said, noting that everyone makes mistakes with pandemic guidelines because they’re so new.

“I think all of us are worn out, right? This is just really hard, and then to be told that you tested positive… sometimes we’re human and we slip up. So they feel they may be judged, and I just would reassure people that that’s not the case,” she said.

Donnell Ewert, the county’s Health and Human Services Agency director, also pointed out that the county doesn’t identify the person when notifying their contacts of possible exposure.

Shasta County employs dozens of people who work to trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19, according to public health officials. (Photo: PRRS)

“Confidentiality is maintained, so people don’t need to be concerned that we’re going to release that information to anybody,” he said. 

Ramstrom said people are within their rights to not to share their contacts with the county, but she wishes they’d consider it for the benefit of others — including their own friends. If someone is still unwilling to, Ramstrom said they should consider reaching out to people themselves. 

“We do… have a growing number of individuals who don’t want to talk to our staff and share that information, which is their choice,” she said. “But at the same time, it also prevents us from helping that person protect the people they’ve been around, which can be people they’re close with.” 

While COVID-19 is typically more serious for elderly people or those with immune issues, children and young adults can still get sick and spread the virus to others. Many of Shasta County’s most recent cases of COVID-19 have been in children under 13. 

Symptoms to watch for include fever, chest pain, muscle aches, chills, cough and other typical cold or flu signs, but the illness can also manifest with extremely mild or non-existent symptoms. At the same time, experts are gradually learning more about the novel virus, like how it can wipe out the sense of taste or smell for infected people and cause other strange symptoms. 

More: Coronavirus live updates: 16 more people test positive, tying one-day record

More: Which California counties are on the COVID-19 watch list, what lands a county on or off?

More: UPDATE: Baugh in the clear after friend’s COVID-19 test comes back negative

Alayna Shulman covers a little bit of everything for the Record Searchlight. In particular, she loves writing about the issues of this community through long-form storytelling. Her work often centers on local crime, features and politics, and has won awards for best writing, best business coverage and best investigative reporting in the California News Publishers Association’s Better Newspapers Contest. Follow her on Twitter (@ashulman_RS), call her at 530-225-8372 and, to support her work, please subscribe. 

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