BATU PAHAT, Jan 18 – Contact tracing is among the most challenging tasks faced by the Ministry of Health frontliners each time they come across a COVID-19 positive case or cluster.
This is because at times they may need to trace thousands of “close contacts” arising from the index case. It is an arduous task but it has to be done because contact tracing is a vital aspect of MOH’s early detection strategy to contain the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and prevent the pandemic from worsening.
MOH health workers involved in carrying out screening activities for individuals connected with the Batu Tujuh cluster here can attest to the difficulty in tracing and contacting them.
This particular cluster, which involves the Batu Pahat and Johor Bahru districts, emerged after a Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI) patient tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov 22.
To date, more than 6,000 contacts have been traced and screened, with 400 of them testing positive.
About 100 MOH healthcare staff from the Batu Pahat, Kluang, Muar, Pontian, Kota Tinggi and Segamat districts were deployed daily to carry out the large-scale screening activities for the Batu Tujuh cluster which is by far one of the biggest clusters in Johor. Although still active, the cluster has been brought under control.
Public health expert Dr Shahril Azian Masrom, who is also Batu Pahat District Health Officer, told Bernama an operations room was set up to trace the movements of the Batu Tujuh cluster index case and close contacts and collect the relevant data, as well as coordinate the healthcare teams involved in investigation, enforcement, sample taking and health promotion activities.
“Before (Batu Tujuh cluster emerged) this, we had handled COVID-19 positive cases in Batu Pahat but the number was not that big. To deal with the Batu Tujuh cluster, we had to get healthcare staff from other districts such as Kluang, Muar, Pontian, Kota Tinggi and Segamat for the case investigation, contact tracing and sample taking processes,” he said.
Staff at the operations room, headed by Batu Pahat District Health Office (PKDBP) public health expert and epidemiology officer Dr Akashah Abdullah, have been working round the clock tirelessly to detect the close contacts, their family members, work colleagues, neighbours and individuals who have been in contact with the COVID-19 patients from the cluster.
Dr Nur Akma Anis Tajuddin, a medical officer at PKDBP’s Infectious Diseases Unit, said they have to do contact tracing for each and every patient, with some of them having over a hundred individuals in their close contact lists.
“We have to get in touch with every close contact so that they can come to the Batu Pahat Health Centre for an RT-PCR swab test,” she said, adding that during the day she and her colleagues would do contact tracing and night, enter the data from their investigations into the computer.
“At night at times, we have to check the data from the MySejahtera application to identify the locations or premises visited by the patients and their close contacts.”
Apart from the long hours they put in to carry out contact tracing, Dr Nur Akma Anis and her colleagues also have to deal with individuals who are reluctant to undergo screening or fail to disclose their symptoms.
The healthcare staff also work closely with the police to ensure that the close contacts ordered to undergo home surveillance comply with the quarantine order.
PKDBP assistant environmental health officer Mohd Ubaidilah Shamsuddin, who was deployed to take samples from the close contacts, said in the earlier stages, he was screening nearly 600 people a day.
“I had to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) for seven to eight hours a day and my body would be covered with perspiration.
“Even when removing the PPE, we have to follow certain SOPs (standard operating procedures),” he said, adding that after completing his work for the day, he would cleanse himself completely before returning home.