Case investigations and contact tracing are trusted public health tools used to prevent further spread of contagious diseases. Contact tracing is not a new tool - public health uses it every day for other contagious diseases like measles and tuberculosis (TB). Contact tracing is an important part of how Virginia can stop the spread of COVID-19.
Who are case investigators and contact tracers?
Case investigators and contact tracers are skilled, trained public health professionals. They find people who test positive for an illness or might have been exposed to an illness and provide guidance on how to stop its spread.
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has been working hard to conduct case investigations and contact tracing since the beginning of the COVID-19 response. VDH has expanded our staff of case investigators and contact tracers from a few hundred to nearly 2,000. It is important for community members to trust these professionals, respond to their outreach, and follow their guidance to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Why does VDH perform case investigation and contact tracing?
Contact tracing and case investigations are important because it helps VDH to:
- Provide guidance and education about how to keep yourself and others safe
- Inform public health actions
- Understand communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19
- Track the progress of the outbreak in Virginia
- Connect people with resources they may need
How will VDH contact people?
The initial contact is by phone. If the person leaves a voicemail, please call back at the phone number provided as soon as possible.
What will interviewers ask?
Interviewers will ask for date of birth, address, race, and ethnicity. They will also ask about symptoms and any recent known exposure to COVID-19, and may request an email address to provide additional resources. VDH will never ask for your social security number, immigration status, or financial information. Information collected during interviews is used only by public health. The information is protected in a secure system and interviewers follow strict confidentiality rules.
How long does an interview last?
An interview with someone sick with COVID-19 (a “case”) typically lasts between 30 and 60 minutes. An interview with someone possibly exposed to COVID-19 (a “contact”) typically lasts between 15 and 30 minutes.
How does it all work?
|1.||You are diagnosed with COVID-19 by your healthcare provider:
Your healthcare provider told you that you had COVID-19 based on a positive COVID-19 test result or because of your illness. You should stay home, keep yourself away from others, and take care of yourself. Learn more about steps you can take to protect other people in your home and community if you have COVID-19.
|2.||VDH is notified when a person with COVID-19 is identified:
Doctors, labs, and hospitals are required by law to report when someone has or might have certain illnesses, including COVID-19. This reporting allows your local health department to track the status of COVID-19 in the community and provide education and support to those that are infected.
|3.||A case investigator from the health department may contact the person with COVID-19 to help identify anyone who may have been exposed:
The case investigator from the health department may reach out to you (usually by phone) for a voluntary and confidential conversation. During this talk, the case investigator will ask you some pre-approved questions to understand more about you and your illness. The interviewer will work with you to create a list of all of the people you may have had close contact with while you were sick, and right before you felt sick. This process helps to find people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of a person(s) with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period or having exposure to the person’s respiratory secretions (for example, being coughed or sneezed on; sharing a drinking glass or utensils; kissing) while they were contagious. A person with COVID-19 is considered to be contagious starting from 2 days before they became sick (or 2 days before they tested positive if they never had symptoms) until they meet the criteria to discontinue isolation.
|4.||People who may have been exposed might be contacted by a contact tracer:
After the people you had close contact with while you were contagious have been identified, a contact tracer (another “disease detective”) will typically reach out and notify each of them of their possible exposure as soon as possible.
Unless you give permission, your name will not be revealed to those you came in contact with, even if they ask. This conversation will be confidential to protect and respect your privacy.
Protecting your confidentiality means that VDH will never share your name or medical records with your contacts without your approval. Your information cannot be shared with other people such as family members, roommates or neighbors. If you are identified as a contact this means VDH cannot give you the name of the person who identified you as someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
The contact tracer will also provide education, information, and support to help the people who may have been exposed and recommend the steps they should take to stop the spread of COVID-19. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, VDH and CDC still recommend that people who have been exposed stay home (“quarantine”) and monitor their health for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days after their last exposure. This is the safest option. If people are not able to stay home for 14 days after their last exposure, there are 2 options*:
If you must leave home early, you cannot leave home before Day 7, even if your viral test results are received before Day 7.
Regardless of how long you stay home, VDH recommends that all people who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 monitor for symptoms and follow all recommendations (e.g., wear a mask, avoid crowds, follow social distancing, and wash hands frequently) for the full 14 days after the last exposure. You can access the VDH Daily Symptom Monitoring Log here.
VDH also recommends that close contacts get tested for COVID-19. The best time to get tested is 5 days or more after the last exposure. A test performed before Day 5 after your exposure cannot be “counted” for getting out of quarantine early. If you test negative on or after Day 5, you should not leave home until after Day 7. If the close contacts become sick, the contact tracer can help connect them to a healthcare provider who can provide information about how to get tested and provide other medical care.
*These options to leave home (end quarantine) earlier than 14 days do not currently apply to healthcare workers or people in healthcare settings. People with certain jobs (e.g., critical infrastructure workers other than education sector workers) should stay home (quarantine) if they have been exposed, but they may be allowed to go to work after being exposed to COVID-19 if the business cannot operate without them. They can only go to work if they do not have any symptoms and if additional precautions are taken to protect them and the community. Learn more about VDH's recommendations for potential exposures for critical infrastructure workers.
Is VDH contacting all cases and their close contacts?
Cases of COVID-19 are increasing rapidly across Virginia. Health departments in Virginia that are unable to perform timely follow-up of all cases and tracing of their close contacts may need to prioritize certain contact tracing and case investigations based on CDC guidance. Health departments will prioritize interviews for people who tested positive for COVID-19 on a viral test or were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 6 days. Health departments will also prioritize contact tracing for household contacts exposed in the past 6 days and people living, working or visiting congregate living facilities, high density workplaces or other settings (or events) with potential extensive transmission. If more than 14 days have elapsed since the specimen was collected, case investigation and contact tracing might not be pursued.
Even if you do not get a call from the health department, it is important that:
- All persons who are diagnosed with or test positive for COVID-19 on a viral test (e.g., PCR or antigen test) identify and notify the people that they had close contact with while they were contagious. The VDH Notify Your Contacts resource provides example messages, recommendations, and a log to help identify your close contacts.
- If you know you had close contact with someone with COVID-19 while the person was contagious, follow quarantine recommendations and monitor your health for 14 days after your last contact.
I have been vaccinated. Will I still be contacted?
Health departments may not know if you have been vaccinated. At this time, if you have been vaccinated for COVID-19, you should follow existing CDC guidance on when and how long to self-isolate if you have COVID-19 or self-quarantine if you are a close contact until you meet the criteria to discontinue isolation. The previous section has more details on possible prioritization for contact tracing and case investigation efforts.
For More Information:
- Read VDH’s general FAQs on COVID-19
- Read VDH Notify Your Contacts resource
- Read VDH Contact Tracing in K-12 Schools resource
- Read CDC Contact Tracing Steps Infographic
- View VDH Contact Tracing Data
- Call VDH COVID-19 hotline at 877-ASK-VDH3
- If you are interested in joining the team to help VDH stop the spread of COVID-19, consider applying for a case investigator or contact tracer position through one of the approved staffing agencies.
Page Last Updated: January 7, 2021