Johnson County epidemiologists remain committed to stopping COVID-19

Posted at 8:39 PM, Mar 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-24 01:22:13-04

OLATHE, Kan. — While much of the public's focus on COVID-19 is about diagnosis and social distancing, a team of epidemiologists and public health experts is working to stop the spread of the virus.

Right now, Johnson County has the majority of coronavirus-positive cases in Kansas. There are 32 cases of coronavirus in Johnson County and 80 positive cases across the state. There have been 2 deaths from coronavirus in Kansas; one in Wyandotte County and one death in Johnson County.

Elizabeth Holzschuh is an epidemiologist with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. She said their mission is challenging and exhausting – but vows they will not give up their quest to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.

Epidemiologists are often called disease detectives. They investigate how a person who tested positive for coronavirus contracted the disease and then identify other people who might have been exposed to the virus.

When the coronavirus first hit, a few weeks ago, there were two master's level public health investigators and one epidemiologist.

"There were times we were working 10 hour-days during the week, eight hours over the weekend; and then we're still working when we're at home,” Holzschuh said. “This is unprecedented for us; we’ve never been in this situation.”

But she said they do the work because they are passionate about it.

“We're willing to do what it takes to get to the truth to save lives," she said.

Johnson County has since added three epidemiologists who were working in other areas; and trained 30 staffers to help make contact calls.

When the health department is notified that a patient tested positive for COVID-19, the epidemiologist contacts the patient's health care provider and the patient. If the patient requires a breathing machine and cannot talk, then the epidemiologist talks with the patient's relatives to try to determine any pre-existing condition and how the patient was exposed to the virus.

The public health experts make calls, contact friends and family and any other individuals or groups of people who might have been exposed to the patient. Those who were exposed are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. Then the public health experts call friends, family and associates who might have been exposed to the people in self-quarantine. During the 14-day period of self-quarantine, each person receives a daily text asking them to press one if they have a fever, press two for cough and press three for difficulty breathing.

"What's frustrating about this is that this is a new virus and we don't have much data on how it operates,” Holzschuh said. “Some people who test positive do not experience any of the typical symptoms. Some people only have a mild cough and fatigue. This is the problem with an emerging infectious disease. There's so little information. So any data we can get is critical to help us make better decisions.”

Another frustration, she said, is the lack of test kits to test more people for coronavirus.

Holzschuh said being able to test more people would help identify where and how the disease is spreading through the community and isolate more people infected, which would greatly reduce the chance of the disease continuing to spread. Because sufficient tests are not available, Holzschuh said it's important for people to follow the social distancing guidelines.

"We all need to act like we have been exposed (to coronavirus) because we don’t have enough test kits to determine everyone who has coronavirus,” she said. “We get calls everyday from people who are upset because they have some symptoms of the coronavirus and they cannot get tested. I understand their frustration. It's my job to continue investigating and developing data to help us better determine who should get tested.”

She said there have been times where she has been discouraged.

"Then I read something that every mitigation (data collected on each patient) that we do will help save lives," she said.

But the process, she said, is a marathon.

"We have a brilliant team, and I know if we just keep doing the work and putting into place public health measures, then I truly believe we will help save lives,” Holzschuh said. “That’s the only thing I can hold onto that pushes me through the exhaustion.”