Victorians with COVID should immediately inform their contacts: DHHS

Doug Hendrie

12/08/2020 1:19:40 PM

EXCLUSIVE: Confirmed cases should immediately contact family, friends and colleagues with whom they have been in close contact, Victorian authorities say.

Man on mobile phone
Patients and GPs have previously been informally undertaking their own contact tracing.

Close contacts should immediately quarantine, monitor their health and wait for a call from official contact tracers.
The new advice from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) gives formal approval to the practice of DIY contact tracing, which GPs and patients have often been doing informally.
GPs have welcomed the move, which comes after widening concerns over wait times for official contact tracing, with many warning this week that long waits due to an overloaded system and high caseload could mean the virus is able to spread unchecked in the interim.
A DHHS spokesperson told newsGP the practice is now encouraged.
‘We encourage everyone who tests positive to contact family, friends and work colleagues they’ve been in close contact with in preceding days to let them know, and keep a list of these people to assist our contact tracing staff in making formal contact,’ the spokesperson said.
‘Our clinically-trained contact tracers will still do their detective work and get in touch with every close contact to ensure they know their quarantine obligations, but the sooner people are notified, the earlier they can quarantine and stop the potential spread of the virus.
‘Anyone who finds out they have had close contact with a positive case any time from two days before symptom onset should immediately quarantine and monitor themselves for any symptoms, while awaiting a call from DHHS if they are considered close contact.’
South Melbourne GP Dr Esther Belleli has labelled the change a ‘really positive move in terms of disease control’.
The change comes after she and other GPs publicly pushed for the shift.
Health authority approval of informal contact tracing will help reduce the numbers of people who have been exposed and who may be infectious while asymptomatic, Dr Belleli believes.
‘Intuitively this is what we should have been doing all along, but it hadn’t been publicly announced,’ she said.
‘The problem has been that people were diagnosed as positive, but apart from informing their immediate family, they were waiting for DHHS to contact them.
‘This move shifts the onus of responsibility onto patients to begin that process and supports GPs to support their patients to manage contact tracing as well.
‘The person with the virus is the best placed to really identify who their close contacts are, where they’ve been, and to quickly notify their family, friends and business contacts. 
‘This should take some pressure off the system. What it will do is reduce the timeframe of waiting for DHHS to initiate contact tracing and take people out of circulation and into quarantine.’ 
Dr Belleli said the traditional role of official contact tracing in disease outbreaks has been to keep watch over emerging clusters and undertake mop-up tracing.
‘That’s how we deal with it for other infectious diseases, but COVID has been new and challenging and dangerous,’ she said.
‘DHHS took complete ownership of the process, but when you have to deal with a surge in cases, you need to use your whole public health response and the whole workforce, and every tool at hand to get it under control as quickly as possible.’
Dr Belleli said the move will also help businesses that are required to put together outbreak management plans by allowing them to actively trace staff who may have been exposed.
But a GP who works in a COVID testing clinic told newsGP the move simply formalises what was already happening in many cases.
‘People are very anxious about testing positive and want to notify their close contacts. That’s been going on since the beginning of the second wave,’ said the GP, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  
‘All this gives the patient is the authorisation to tell others they are probably a close contact. It doesn’t give GPs discretion to test close contacts or give them advice about isolation or anything else. It’s really no different to the status quo.
‘If we could have GP-led contact tracing of close contacts and test them, we would pick up a lot of asymptomatic cases. In my experience, there are a huge number of young people who are asymptomatic.’
The DHHS defines a close contact as 15 minutes face-to-face contact or two hours in an enclosed space.
newsGP understands it is common for people to receive a positive COVID test before the DHHS is formally notified. The department aims to contact all patients within 24 hours of being notified and close contacts as soon as possible after the first interview.
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