A NSW Government website


District’s PHU plays key role in COVID-19 response

Dr Leena Gupta explains the detective work involved in contact tracing.

An office with four workers using computers at a desk in each corner.
SydneyConnect Image: Public Health Unit

The Public Health Unit is working around the clock to protect the community from the spread of COVID-19.

As the number of confirmed cases grows, the Unit’s Clinical Director, Dr Leena Gupta, explains contact tracing is one of the biggest tasks her team is performing. 

Question: What work is the PHU focused on during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Answer: As with any disease outbreak, the PHU is focussed on these key tasks:

  • Identifying new, suspected or probable cases
  • Ensuring testing is carried out to confirm a case
  • Tracing any close contacts of a confirmed case
  • Isolating people who are confirmed cases and quarantining their close contacts
  • Ensuring the safe release of people from isolation once they’re non-infectious

About 40 PHU staff, including nurses, doctors, environmental health officers, epidemiologists and administrators, are carrying out this work.

They have been joined by more than 75 staff who have been redeployed from the District’s Population Health, Community Health and Planning teams.

Question: What is contact tracing?

Answer: Contact tracing involves the PHU making phone contact with people who are confirmed to have COVID-19 and interviewing them. 
So far, the PHU has been involved in more than 250 cases.

Contact tracing over the phone is almost like being a detective. We ask lots of questions so we can identify people’s movements and their close contacts while infectious.

The answers help us to understand how people may have acquired COVID-19. We’re also able to build a picture of their social and living circumstances and how it impacts on public health.

Often people are shocked or surprised to get a call from us.

We have carried out contact tracing involving schools, universities, large workplaces, restaurants, hospitals, and GP practices – it may mean calling hundreds of people in a single case.

We scrutinise data to identify any specific areas or clusters where there’s a need for increased testing so that we’re able to work swiftly to minimise any localised transmission.

We work to ensure people who are confirmed to have COVID-19 are safely isolated at home, or a hospital if they’re unwell.

We provide referrals for accommodation if needed. We’re overseeing the isolation of about 350 people in the five hotels the District has leased. 

We provide referrals for personal protective equipment and transport too.

We support them, and their close contacts, by providing information about their responsibilities while in isolation and arrange clinical and welfare follow-ups, with support from rpavirtual.

We ensure their safe release from home isolation once they’re considered not to be infectious. 

We also follow-up close contacts, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, to ensure their welfare, to arrange testing if they develop symptoms or to release them from quarantine at the end of 14 days, if they remain well.

We often also have to work with organisations to make sure they’re aware, and their clients or visitors are aware, of the unfolding situation through letters and notices, and sometimes through media and social media.

Question: Why is contact tracing important?

Answer: Contact tracing is a critical public health measure that’s being used in countries all around the world.

We know it works, especially when it’s combined with other public health strategies.

Identifying all the cases of COVID-19, and breaking the chains of transmission via social distancing, is helping to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, which means reducing the disease burden and spreading cases over a longer period.

This is done to protect our community and to ensure the health system is able to care for people adequately.