FARGO — They’ve been sworn at and hung up on. Some of the people they’re calling refuse to answer their questions.

For contact tracers in North Dakota who are trying to minimize the spread of COVID-19, those occurrences used to be infrequent.

Now, they’re happening dozens of times a week, according to Brenton Nesemeier, state health department field epidemiologist and director of field services, who works out of Fargo.

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“I'm told I don't know how to do my job, that I'm ruining kids’ and people’s lives. I know other contact tracers have been told the same thing and it’s very frustrating,” Nesemeier said.

Similar pushback is happening 80 miles north, according to Ashlee Nelson, contact investigations team lead at Grand Forks Public Health.

“We’re not out to get anybody,” Nelson said.

There are likely more contact tracers at work in North Dakota now than at any time in the pandemic thus far, Nesemeier said.

At Fargo Cass Public Health, 30 to 40 staff members are available for case investigations, and North Dakota State University has 50 to 60 graduate students to help.

Up to 50 National Guard members also assist with contact notification when needed.

Contact tracers are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, in shifts.

Grand Forks Public Health has 21 staff members doing the work, eight of them on a full-time basis.

The University of North Dakota has 60 people making the calls, most of them graduate students.

“It’s ten or so on at a time. They have a deep bench,” Nelson said.

Contact tracers aim to make their initial call within the first hour of receiving a case.

If a person went to their primary care provider for a COVID-19 test, their doctor’s office gives them the result.

However, if they were tested at a mass event, such as a recent one in Grand Forks, it’s often a contact tracer who gives the notification.

“We try to remain very sensitive with that. It still can be shocking to find out you were, in fact, positive,” Nelson said.

She understands how much of an inconvenience it can be to have to quarantine or isolate, and how reluctant people are to provide names of friends who might have to stay home for 14 days.

“We wish we didn’t have to make these calls,” she said.

However, contact tracing remains one of the most important tools for public health agencies.

“If we aren't getting compliance with quarantine and isolation, then we're going to continue to increase our (coronavirus) numbers,” Nesemeier said.

Nelson said she was disappointed by the recent rescinding of an order that required all close contacts, not just household contacts of known COVID-19 cases, to quarantine.

Interim State Health Officer Dr. Paul Mariani put the expanded order in place Wednesday, Sept. 23.

It was rescinded the next day and Mariani, who’d been on the job for less than two weeks, resigned the day after.

“It mixes the message on what’s important. I fear that it… makes us sound unsure of the benefits of it,” Nelson said.

Many of the guidelines on contact tracing, however, remain unchanged.

Nesemeier said they’re still asking people who are COVID-19 positive to go back two days before their symptoms began, or if they’re asymptomatic, two days before they were tested, to determine their close contacts.

The definition of a close contact is also still the same — coming within six feet of the infected person for a cumulative 15 minutes or more, he said.

Workers are having to call more close contacts now, however, because more people are attending larger gatherings and public events than they were in the earlier days of the pandemic and the exposure net is wider.

They’re asking for a little patience and understanding.

“We’re really just trying to do our part to help the state and the community get over this,” she said.

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