KITCHENER -- "What are your symptoms? When did they start? Were you in close contact with anyone who’s been sick?"

Those are some of the questions you’ll be asked by a public health nurse at the Region of Waterloo if you test positive for COVID-19.

A team of about two dozen public health staff members is using contact tracing to try to break the chain of transmission.

“It helps us isolate and identify the virus, isolate the individuals who are exposed to it, so that we basically prevent the spread,” said Karen Haughey, a public health nurse with the Region of Waterloo.

Prior to the pandemic, Haughey helped implement policies under cannabis legislation and vaping legislation, as well as educate people on quitting smoking and nicotine replacement. 

When COVID-19 hit, Haughey started taking calls from the public. Now it’s her job to ask the questions.

“I would describe it as sort of like the detective work of public health in order of putting all those pieces together like a puzzle, around where might they have picked this up as well as who might they have [been] exposed to,” she explained.

If you test positive for COVID-19 and you’re contacted by public health, you’ll be asked to isolate for 14 days. Staff will contact trace as far as they’re able to find people with symptoms.

“It can be a never-ending piece,” said Haughey. “But the whole point is we’re catching it ahead of it being two weeks down the line and multiple people have been infected.”

According to Laughey, contact tracing is public health’s most effect tool – but it’s not new. It’s been used as a regular part of public health’s management of communicable diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis and Meningococcal disease.

As for how long it could take to trace each case, it depends on the number of contacts each person has had while infectious. The fewer the close contacts, the less time it takes to reach them.

“It is effective as the main strategy for preventing the spread,” said Haughey. “But it also relies on the individual maintaining isolation and following the instructions that we have in order to make all of those pieces possible.”

Public health nurses depend on each person to provide honest and accurate answers to their questions – and be willing to provide personal information to various businesses collecting data, such as bars or restaurants.

“People might notice as they’re going out that restaurants, if they’re going out to eat or accessing certain services, that they’re collecting their information and screening clients ahead in some cases,” said Haughey. “So that information would be an example of how that’s helpful for us should an exposure happen.”

Haughey recommends keeping track of where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with. While not necessary, she says it's helpful for remembering missing pieces in case there’s a need for contact tracing.