CHARLES TOWN – As the number of coronavirus infections rapidly rises, the chances are increasing that the Jefferson County Health Department may give you a call.  

Dr. Terrence Reidy, the department’s soft-spoken, grandfatherly health officer, has some gentle advice: Go ahead and answer the call.

It might be a coronavirus contact-tracing health worker who has some helpful information for you, Reidy said. “They should get the facts in their situation and then get some advice on what to do if they’re feeling worse,” he said of anyone who might become infected with the spreading pandemic.

Reidy said a small but not insignificant share of the people infected with the virus are ignoring the phone messages (or sometimes emails, texts and even the occasional certified letter) notifications from contact tracers with the health department.

The role of COVID contact tracers is to anonymously map where the virus has been or could go. A bank of health department contact tracers are working overtime through the pandemic to identify, monitor and support people who have been—or may have—been exposed to someone else infected with the virus, whether that someone else has developed COVID or not.

But a minority of people are not responding to health department calls, Reidy said. Or some, he added, giving incomplete information—such as leaving out a grandparent living in a house where someone is infected. That can undermine the health department’s otherwise assistance to a person or hinder its broader work to curb overall infections in the surrounding community.

Often self-isolating for 10 days or less is the advice a health department representative gives to someone who’s become infected, Reidy said. Nevertheless, people should answer those communications to possibly receive useful information they might not know, he said. Or perhaps people will receive information that corrects misperceptions or misinformation.

“Much of our information, of course, whether it’s on the Internet or the radio waves is sound bites,” he said. “It’s one or two sentences and not a little more in-depth explanation of the complexities. So people have a little knowledge but they don’t have much understanding.”

Just as important, people can receive guidance from the contact tracer that helps a person make decisions to navigate their own specific life or circumstance, Reidy said. “They may be given some advice that now is not general advice that’s out there on the airwaves or the internet—advice that asks questions about their own situation and gives them ways that they can improve their risk of either infecting someone else or getting infected,” he said.

After all, a person doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know.

Health officials aren’t looking to lock anyone up, report them to anyone else or order them to do anything, Reidy said. But depending on the situation a contact tracer can sometimes quell unrealistic fears or provide a safety line to an unwitting high-wire pandemic walker.  

“It can help clarify some things for people, and sometimes their idea of what they must do isn’t quite right,” Reidy said.

The reasons some people shy from the health department representatives are varied, Reidy said. Some people might hope to protect their personal information. Some feel shame or embarrassment. Some could fear losing a job or needed income. A few others might deny the potential seriousness that a virus infection could have for themselves or anyone else.

None of those reasons should keep anyone from talking to a health department representative about a coronavirus infection, Reidy said.

Any information contact tracers receive remains anonymous, Reidy pointed out. But the doctor admits sometimes people can figure out who might have passed the virus on to them after they’re notified by the health department.

So, it’s a minority of people disregarding calls from contact tracers, Reidy acknowledges. But that minority can have an impact when it comes to helping others control a potentially dangerous airborne virus spread invisibly by close and unguarded contact between people.

“For the most part, people treat this as not something they should be ashamed of,” Reidy said. “For the most part, people are very good about immediately letting their friends know, either on Facebook or calling them.”

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