The view from inside my hotel room as I sat in quarantine. I mostly passed the time by watching the Matrix movies and listening to the Revolutions podcast. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
Over the holiday season, I found myself more isolated than ever because it had finally happened: Despite all my precautions, I caught coronavirus.
But even during those somewhat lonely winter weeks, I was grateful for public health measures that continue to keep those around me safe. One tool in particular — contact tracing — likely prevented me from infecting anyone else.
On Sunday, Dec. 12, I walked into the Roundhouse feeling pretty normal health-wise as the special session dragged on through the weekend.
Lawmakers were scheduled to meet later that day, so the only person I saw in the whole building was the security guard who let me in. I went to the press gallery overlooking the empty House of Representatives and started preparing for work that day.
At about 10 a.m., I got an alert on my phone: “You may have been exposed.” I immediately packed up my stuff, left the capital, got in my car and texted my editor the bad news.
The alert was from New Mexico’s health agency, sent through NM Notify, a contact-tracing application I installed on my phone at some point in 2020. It told me that a few days earlier, I had been around someone who had the virus.
“One of the people who you were recently near has tested positive for COVID-19,” the app told me. “The strength and duration of the exchanges between the phones suggests that you might have been exposed to COVID-19.”
Until that morning, I forgot the app was even on my phone. This was the first time I had ever gotten any notifications from it. According to the Department of the Health, it constantly scans and exchanges random keys with the phones of the people you are near.
Those keys contain no personal information or location data and everything is completely anonymous, the department says. They are sent through Bluetooth rather than GPS, so the app does not know your location.
The app asked me to self-quarantine. I immediately went home. Later that day, hours after the notification, I started feeling a sore throat and a dry cough every once in a while. But as our in-home heaters are kicking on and drying us out overnight, the symptoms can be hard to pick out. If I hadn’t gotten that notification, I don’t know that I would have given my minor ailments too much thought.
The next afternoon, I was sitting in the parking lot of an urgent care clinic where my primary care provider works, and a health worker in full protective garb swabbed my nose as part of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
The following night, I got test results back showing that I was positive for COVID-19. A nurse practitioner told me to quarantine until the following Wednesday, 10 days from when I first felt symptoms.
At that point I was feeling OK, and I’m convinced that the Pfizer vaccine I got in April and the booster shot I got in November kept me out of the hospital. My symptoms went away, although I developed some brief chest pain a week after the notification.
I got test results back on Christmas Eve showing that I was negative for COVID-19. While I describe my symptoms to everyone I know as “mild,” I do not know if I will end up with long COVID or what that will look like.
But the greatest benefit I got from the app was the reassurance that no one in my life got infected. Anyone who’d been around me in the few days before the notification ended up testing negative. And I didn’t walk around unwittingly shedding a potentially deadly virus in public spaces.
The strengths and limits of contract tracing
Contact tracing is a public health measure used to identify, assess and manage people who have been exposed to someone who has been infected with the virus. It typically comes along with quarantine in a designated medical institution, hotel, or a person’s own home.
The NM Notify app is just one kind of electronic tracing. Contact tracing can also include manual investigations, like conducting interviews over the phone with people who are exposed.
Research shows that contact tracing, when paired with mass testing and early isolation, can lower the risk of transmission and dramatically reduce the burden of future isolation.
Contact tracing methods like NM Notify have their limitations, though, because both the infected person and their contacts need to use the same software or system. That’s especially difficult in states like New Mexico that have poorer access to high-speed internet.
New Mexico health officials are updating their contract tracing protocols and will announce specifics “in the near future,” according to a Dec. 29 news release.
Department of Health spokesperson Katy Diffendorfer wrote in an email that health officials will offer more information about the new contract tracing procedures on Wednesday afternoon.
How could we do it better?
Contact tracing alone is not enough to prevent transmission of COVID-19, and there are ways to improve New Mexico’s contact tracing program.
In New York City, for example, their contact tracing not only tends to patients’ medical and physical needs, but also material and social needs, according to one person’s experience shared as a thread on Twitter.
Contact tracers with the program in New York, rather than making the sick person responsible to trace their steps, made the calls on their behalf. In my case, I had to send a bunch of emails and make phone calls to the people I was around.
The New York program also connects positive patients with free resources, including grocery or medicine delivery, a free 10-day hotel stay including food and transportation, help with domestic violence, threat of eviction, and other social services; 10 paid days off from employers, medical tele-health appointments or mental health support, pet care and support paying for utilities.
All of that matters, because if people don’t have everything they need to isolate, they could be forced to make hard decisions that don’t protect public health.
In my case, I was lucky enough to get a hotel room paid for by Source New Mexico. That is an immense privilege not available to most New Mexicans.
New York also sends out “take care packages” with masks, sanitizer, clorox wipes, a thermometer, an oximeter and a booklet on how to navigate COVID.
We have some of these services in New Mexico, but they are not integrated into the contact tracing program. No one who I spoke with, neither my health care provider nor the state Department of Health, brought up these services in our conversations.
So there’s more to do when it comes to making sure people have what they need so they can isolate and stop the spread. Still, without NM Notify and the people who run it, I would have had a much harder time dealing with the stress of possibly infecting others in my community. I just hope we can strengthen and expand these efforts to keep ourselves and each other safe.
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