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Published Tuesday 28 Apr 2020

Liz Macdonald from Regional Public Health gives us a glimpse into life for contact tracing teams at the frontline of the COVID-19 response in Wellington.

Contact tracing is an important part of our COVID-19 response. Contact tracing involves tracking down all the people who may have been exposed to the virus and working with them to keep themselves and others safe. This helps prevent the spread of the virus by ensuring people who may be at a higher risk can take appropriate precautions and seek early healthcare if necessary.

In the Wellington region, this work is done by Regional Public Health, a public health service that works with the local DHBs to help keep our communities healthy and well. In addition to contact tracing, Regional Public Health has also been leading border security work, ensuring that all passengers arriving into New Zealand through Wellington Airport are screened for COVID-19 and given appropriate instructions on how to self-isolate.

Liz Macdonald, Communicable Disease Clinical Nurse Specialist, from Regional Public Health gives us a glimpse into life for contact tracing teams at the frontline of the COVID-19 response in Wellington.

What work were you doing before the COVID-19 outbreak?

We are public health nurses who work in the disease control team at Regional Public Health. Our work routinely involves following up all notifiable diseases in our region through case management and contact tracing. We are experienced in contact tracing for other diseases such as measles, but obviously COVID-19 is a new disease with its own challenges. With COVID-19 we're all learning something new on a daily basis.

What does an average day look like now?

There isn't really an average day for us here because case numbers vary - on our busiest day we had 24 cases notified but other days we've had very low numbers. Since the beginning of the lockdown we've seen a spike in cases here in the Wellington region and now daily new case numbers have dropped off.

Most days begin with a morning team meeting where we review changes and share updates that will influence our work. Since COVID-19 is a new virus and evidence around best practice is continuing to emerge, things are changing by the day. We review cases from the previous day and establish any outstanding work required around these cases. As results come through from the laboratory (usually three times each day), we allocate any new cases to a public health nurse, who begins the case investigation and contact tracing work.

What is the hardest part about contact tracing?

It's a pretty time-consuming job. Sometimes it can be tricky for a person to recall all the activities they did and places they visited over the past days and weeks, especially if they are unwell. Sometimes it can take multiple phone calls to ensure we cover off all the potential places and people who may have been exposed.

What is the most interesting thing about your job?

The contact tracing aspect of our work is really interesting. It sometimes feels like you're both public health nurse and private investigator as you work to track people down, and attempt to identify links between cases.

Sometimes people choose to share entertaining anecdotes and we find out about the interesting lives people lead. We prefer people to over-share so we can get the most accurate information, but sensitivity and the individual’s right to privacy are always front of mind.

What would you like the public to know about your job?

Public health work can often go under the radar. We're not at the face of healthcare like hospital and GP practice health professionals. However, we're here in public health units around the country, beavering away to keep communities and the population well and healthy through various work, including keeping communicable diseases well managed and contained. We are approachable and here to support you, the communities we work with.

What would you like the public to know about COVID-19?

It's the most vulnerable in our community who will be the hardest hit by this virus. By staying home, we help to reduce its spread and to keep these people well.

Testing is so important. COVID-19 can present similarly to our usual colds and flus. The classic symptoms as you will have read and heard many times are cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, high temperatures, runny nose, loss of smell. However, symptoms are variable and if you have any concerns at all please talk to a health professional and please get tested. We will have many negative test results, but testing is how we will identify the positive cases and how our team can then be in touch with you in order to contact trace and stamp it out.

Also, people should continue to access health care services when they need them. GP clinics and pharmacies are still open. Call for an ambulance in an emergency. If you need medical attention for any health concern please seek help promptly. 

More information

For more information about COVID-19 and tips for staying well, visit the Regional Public Health website