Contact tracing units set to permanently track flu, STIs and food poisoning

Contact tracing teams stationed across Victoria are set to become permanent fixtures of the health system, working to contain outbreaks ranging from influenza to sexually transmitted infections and food poisoning.

The Department of Health is working on a plan for contact tracing teams to run “surveillance” on communicable diseases beyond the coronavirus pandemic while remaining on standby to respond to future pandemics.

The Barwon Health contact tracing team at work. Credit:Jason South

Local contact tracing teams, embedded in COVID regional response units, have proven instrumental in controlling coronavirus clusters in regional Victoria – particularly those overseen by the Barwon Health network in the south-west of the state.

There are now just two active cases recorded in regional Victoria.

The state government is also establishing similar response units in metropolitan Melbourne rather than running all contact tracing from a central point within the Department of Health.

Proponents of local contact tracing say it is far more effective than the previous centralised model because it is underpinned by intimate understanding of neighbourhoods and community trust in local healthcare providers.

A board showing suspected close contacts of positive cases at University Hospital in Geelong. Credit:Jason South

The establishment of permanent tracing units has the backing of the powerful Australian Medical Association’s Victorian branch.

The group’s Victorian president Julian Rait said the units could deal with outbreaks of salmonella poisoning and influenza as well as running prevention programs for other chronic health conditions including diabetes.

“I think that’s a good idea – my concern is you want to make sure they’re properly resourced,” Professor Rait said.

AMA Victoria president Julian Rait has backed the establishment of local public health units but stressed they must be properly resourced. Credit:Justin McManus

“If we were to build up a bit more expertise I think we could not only address pandemics better we might be able to prevent a lot of chronic illnesses as well.”

Contact tracing was previously a little-known part of the health system but moves to make local units permanent are an indication of the legacy COVID-19 will leave on the health sector.

The units are led by infectious disease and public health experts and provide contact tracing, monitoring and support for people who have tested positive to coronavirus across regional Victoria.

“They are positioned to act immediately with speed and agility, informed by the local knowledge of how and where the virus is likely to spread in local communities and to report back centrally,” a Health Department spokeswoman said.

“We are constantly reviewing ways to adapt and improve our public health response including the long-term scope of our regional contact tracing teams.”

There are six regional response units based in Ballarat, Bendigo, Barwon south-west, Albury-Wodonga, Latrobe and Goulburn.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said the health infrastructure created to deal with the pandemic may soon be needed again and must remain active to ensure they are ready.

Tony Blakely says contact tracing must continue working between pandemics to ensure they can respond to outbreaks.

“You need to keep doing it to be on top of it,” he said.

Some contact tracing is already conducted for HIV and syphilis but sexual health expert Marcus Chen said only handful of workers filled those roles.

He said localised contact tracing would improve the chances of limiting sexually transmitted infections because workers would understand the local and cultural nuances that would encourage people to share information about outbreaks and provide access to treatment.

“That makes complete sense because that’s what we need for STIs, particularly syphilis,” Professor Chen said. “We know contact tracing is vital but often it's done very poorly with STIs.”

Barwon Health chief executive Frances Diver said regional health services were already experienced at running multiple operations ranging from full hospital care to community health.

“What the pandemic has shown us is that the response to COVID is not just about contact tracing," she said. "It’s about a comprehensive local response.”

She said Barwon Health was quick to integrate other services in its coronavirus response including public communications, in-house COVID testing as well as working with the disability, residential and aged care sectors.

“By having contact tracing as part of our ordinary functions we’ve been able to act really fast and locally and bring outbreaks under control quickly.”

In Barwon Health’s catchment area there has been a total of 578 coronavirus cases as well as 3700 close contacts who have been monitored. Greater Geelong had a total of 366 cases but there are now none.

Ms Diver said success in controlling outbreaks had boosted morale and helped staff power through the stress of the pandemic.

“We felt like it was a race to save Geelong. We were very keen to make sure we kept the numbers under control so we could avoid some of the more severe lockdown measures that were required in Melbourne.”

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