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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Coronavirus: tracking contact ‘a steep learning curve’

A contract tracking team in Pontypool

Caption of the image

This contract tracking team works from a Torfaen council office

In a perfectly ordinary office in an industrial area in Pontypool, a team of advisers is hitting the phones.

Gathered from various departments of the local authorities of Torfaen and Monmouthshire, they are now at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19.

“We have people from theaters, community farms, school crossing patrols – people who usually don’t do it like a normal day job,” explains contact tracer Jason Austin.

“It was a very steep learning curve.”

Positive coronavirus cases are reported by the Gwent test teams to the team here.

It is up to them to “put the puzzle together”, as Jason says, and figure out who might have been infected after coming into contact with an individual who found out he had the virus.

Their job is therefore to contact those people and support them through their self-isolation.

As of Wednesday, the team has successfully tracked 222 of 225 potential contacts, 99%. Across Wales in the week up to June 27, the equivalent success rate was 84%.

As an environmental health officer, Jason has been doing this job effectively for 15 years.

Caption of the image

Jason Austin is using his experience as an environmental health officer when searching for contacts

“It’s a bit of a memory test,” he says, “and the experience I had with food poisoning is very difficult to remember what you ate a couple of days ago, let alone what you did two weeks ago.

“You only listen to people; where have they been, the kind of interaction they have had, and you just try to pinpoint the key points and pull them back to say, ‘What did you do on this day? Go out to lunch? Have you been to work? Did you take a coffee break with someone? Did you take a smoking break with someone?

“They are the type of key points that you try to collect naturally and the type of skill that I have tried to convey to my colleagues, who are less on par with the search for contacts.”

As Jason describes his work, I am reminded of the recent Salisbury Poisonings drama I had seen on iPlayer.

The three part tells the story of how an attack by nervous agents led the city to stop in 2018.

It focuses on the work of Wiltshire’s director of public health, Tracy Daszkiewicz as he tries to find the source of the poison.

“It’s amazing, that’s not true,” shouts Jason’s colleague, Melanie. “I’ve seen it twice!”

Melanie Smith is deputy director of a community farm in Cwmbran, but with that site currently closed she is one of those involved to help with the search for contacts.

“I love it,” he says. “It’s a great team of people and we are playing a really important role here.”

Caption of the image

Melanie Smith was drafted to help trace the contract

Melanie’s job as a contact consultant is to telephone those identified as potentially exposed to the virus and advise them during their 14 days of self-isolation.

To this end, she and her colleagues received a script to follow during their calls.

“We don’t provide any information in terms of who the case is – let’s just say that the person has been in contact with a positive case of Covid-19, and therefore we help rest their minds and help to trust that we are here to support them and give their advice.

“Our main role is really to build trust in the public, make sure they conform and self-isolate to help keep Wales safe.”

Cases of fraudsters who pretend to come from contact tracking teams have recently been reported.

“The only information we will ask for will be their birth date and address,” says Melanie.

“The genuine team will never ask for personal information about bank data or ask them to download links or apps: this is what scammers do and we want to put people’s minds to rest.”

The key to the success of any tracking scheme is the rapid reversal of test results.

Jason says, “They are coming back as we would expect, within a day … it seems to be working well.”

However, statistics released this week show that across Wales only 49.4% of test results returned within 24 hours and Prime Minister Mark Drakeford acknowledged that improvement was needed.

Politics Wales is on BBC One Wales on Sunday 5 July at 10:15 BST and then on iPlayer.

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