News Coronavirus Coronavirus detectives: Race to track and trace cases across Victoria

Coronavirus detectives: Race to track and trace cases across Victoria

Health workers are taking on contact tracing duties during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: TND
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Pregnant health workers and experienced GPs are putting their hands up to become contact tracers in a race to help Victoria get on top of its coronavirus crisis.

It comes amid mounting criticism the state does not have enough contact tracers to follow up the contacts of new daily cases.

Victoria alone had a total of 3751 mystery cases on Wednesday, up 82 since Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton defended the state’s contact tracing capabilities, rejecting assertions that Victoria only has half the number of contact tracers as NSW.

“We’ve got a very large contact tracing workforce,” he told reporters, though he couldn’t confirm the number of workers.

But not everyone is convinced.

Speaking on 3AW on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed he was concerned about Victoria’s level of contact tracing.

When asked by host Neil Mitchell if the system was failing to keep up, Mr Morrison said the federal government had “been doing a lot of work to improve the information systems together with the Victorian government”.

“It’s one thing to have the people available but you’ve got to have the systems to support them,” he said.

In recent weeks, some Victorians have reported waiting nearly two weeks to hear whether or not they have been exposed to COVID-19.

Pregnant doctors step up to help

The job of contact tracers is to call people who returned positive coronavirus test results to investigate how they got infected and ensure close contacts know to self-isolate.

Of the 50 regional contact tracers working at Barwon Health in Geelong, at least 15 are pregnant.

Dr Alex Umbers, formerly a doctor in Colac, is one of them.

Dr Alex Umbers is working as a contact tracer in Geelong. Photo: Alex Umbers

“Initially, I had that kind of survivor guilt of getting away from the new outbreak in Colac … to protect my unborn baby and myself, but when I arrived I realised we were doing really meaningful work to interrupt transmission,” Dr Umbers told The New Daily. 

And, of course, not just anyone can do it. Contact tracers must be sensitive and extremely precise.

“As doctors, we are trained and practised at having difficult face-to-face conversations in our usual every workspace,” she said.

This could include managing angry patients, helping families make tough decisions, or arranging an ambulance to take someone to the emergency department.

“A lot of it is about your clinical instinct,” Dr Umbers said.

“And it’s really working – our regional cases are down 67 per cent in the southwest region from a few weeks ago.”

GPs eager to help

Dr Linden Smibert, a general practitioner in Melbourne, said she and other health workers would be happy to “lend a hand” by becoming contact tracers.

“I don’t know if the contact tracing in Victoria is happening fast enough,” she told The New Daily. 

“We need people who understand the system and what is going on, and who appreciate that time is of the essence.”

She said doctors were used to taking down histories and asking questions related to every disease, not just the coronavirus.

“That’s our job,” Dr Smibert said.

“If little Johnny got chickenpox, you need to ask ‘Who did he see? Where did he get it from?'”

The benefits of keeping it local

Professor Daniel O’Brien is an infectious diseases physician and the head of Barwon Health’s COVID-19 contact tracing unit in Geelong.

His team of 50 contact tracers is made up of all sorts of health professionals, including physios, occupational therapists, nurses, doctors, admin staff and audiologists.

The team’s biggest advantage? They’re all locals.

“Hearing about cases through word of mouth or local GPs is much quicker than if you were running through a central system,” Professor O’Brien told The New Daily. 

“You’ve got maybe a 48 to 72 hour window from when somebody comes down with the coronavirus and you can get to those people before they become infectious and transmit it to others.”

He added rapid contact tracing and isolation was so effective at containing outbreaks that in some instances, like the cluster at a Colac abattoir, transmission had been reduced by up to 80 per cent.

“It’s challenging and it’s stressful because you’ve got a lot of cases and a lot of work and you need to do it quickly but it’s very rewarding,” he said.