Many people don't answer their phone when they don't know who is calling, which has made it difficult for health officials to get in touch with people as they try to investigate COVID-19 cases.
Now, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will text people before a health official tries to call them, a news release says.
"We hope that the text will alert people to the fact that we will be calling," said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm. "We've seen from colleagues in other states and some of our local health department colleagues who have been using this text feature, that it does in fact make people more likely to answer the call."
This texting program will begin on Monday. People who test positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts will get a text message to let them know that a case interviewer from state, local or tribal health departments will be calling to discuss their COVID-19 test results or potential exposure.
“We have information and resources to share with Minnesotans, but we understand that many people are wary of answering a phone call from a number they don’t recognize,” said Chris Elvrum, MDH project spokesperson. “... Adding this tool boosts our chances of slowing the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the number of people who answer the call and successfully isolate themselves.”
The text message will include the phone number from which the health official will be calling, which MDH hopes will lead to more calls getting answered and more contact tracing interviews being completed.
“Reaching every single person by phone who needs information is a monumental task,” Malcolm said. “Our staff and our partners in local public health and tribal health have done enormous work in this area, and will continue to do so. We ask all Minnesotans to do their part by answering the call, and we hope this text notification helps provide some notice and reassurance.”
Since the start of the pandemic, health officials across the state have stressed the importance of answering the phone when the health department calls as contact tracing is a key piece in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The information that we collect from you is very important to understanding the spread of the virus and understanding where there could be potential risks of exposure in our community," St. Louis County Public Health Divison Director Amy Westbrook said Thursday. "You're not in trouble. There's no repercussions or anything."
When a public health official calls, they'll talk with you about the symptoms you have, people you may have been in contact with and how to avoid getting other people sick. They'll also connect you with resources.
The goal of this contact tracing is to connect with people who have or were exposed to COVID-19, help people isolate themselves to prevent spreading the virus and educate people on reducing their risk. Every case that successfully isolates after being exposed can prevent "dozens of people" from getting the disease, MDH says.
MDH is also hopeful this texting program will help combat people's fears about scammers pretending to be health care workers. The health department says case interviewers will never ask for a Social Security Number, bank account information or credit card numbers.
The health department's contact tracing website has additional details on how contact tracing works.