Meet Connie Alaniz, Comal County’s New Epidemiologist
by Cheryl Ursin, Features Editor
On April 17, Comal County’s Office of Public Health hired its first full-time epidemiologist, Connie Alaniz, and is currently in the process of hiring a second.
Here, Alaniz answered questions about how her work tracing cases of COVID-19 can help limit the spread of the virus.
What is an epidemiologist and what do they do?
An epidemiologist studies disease in order to protect a population. The goal of an epidemiologist is to understand a disease, the way a disease is transmitted, and then educate the community on ways to prevent transmission of the disease and prevent outbreaks.
What is your background?
I retired in 2018 from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). I worked with Texas Health and Human Services since 1988 in My Health My Resources, Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, and DSHS.
For nine years, I was an epidemiologist with DSHS Region 8 in San Antonio where I investigated individual cases and outbreaks of foodborne, waterborne, invasive respiratory, and vaccine preventable illness. I was part of the team that investigated outbreaks of listeria, salmonella, legionella, pertussis, and influenza.
My first year as the influenza surveillance coordinator was in 2009, during the H1N1 pandemic. I remember thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
My time working in public health taught me a great deal, and it was as much an education as it was a career.
When I accepted a position in the Epidemiology Program at Region 8, I had a great deal of experience with public health, but none in epidemiology. I had some amazing mentors, teachers, managers and co-workers who taught me how to investigate each disease, how to educate the public on disease prevention, and how to stop and prevent outbreaks.
What do you do as Comal County’s epidemiologist?
When I receive a report of a positive COVID-19 case, I begin an investigation. The investigation process attempts to reveal where and when a patient was exposed to the disease and who the patient has potentially exposed.
During the investigation, I ask about symptoms, travel, employment, and close contacts.
The patient is asked to isolate in their home until at least 10 days have passed since the onset of illness, and at least three days have passed without having fever. Household members are also asked to quarantine during this time. I contact each patient daily to monitor symptoms until they are removed from isolation.
Once the patient is removed from isolation, household members are quarantined and monitored for symptoms for an additional 14 days.
Why did Comal County hire an epidemiologist?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Comal County did not have an epidemiologist on staff. I was hired to work exclusively with COVID-19 cases.
But there are almost 100 conditions that are reportable by law in Texas, and these require public health investigation and intervention. Local health departments that do not have an epidemiologist on staff rely on other public health staff to do these investigations, or the epidemiologists with DSHS. In Comal County, the team of nursing, immunization, and clerical staff have done a tremendous job of handling these investigations in addition to their own public health responsibilities.
When the pandemic began, the workload for COVID-19 investigations was tremendous. Thankfully, funding was allocated to hire an epidemiologist, and I was blessed to be chosen for the position. Grant funding for this position ends in March 2021, so unless funding is extended, my position will end in March.
What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing is done when a patient has had close contact with anyone during their infectious period. We ask patients to identify anyone they had close contact with two days prior to the onset of illness, and we contact those people. We request that they quarantine for 14 days since the last time they had contact with the patient, and we monitor them for symptoms of COVID-19.
We also ask patients to identify anyone they had contact with who was sick prior to the onset of their illness. We look backward to see if we can identify where the patient contracted the disease, and forward to identify contacts to the patient and try to stop further transmission of the disease.
What are the benefits of this work?
Each time I speak to a patient, I have the opportunity to make a difference. I educate the patient on the importance of adhering to isolation guidelines. I emphasize to the patient that he/she has the ability to stop the spread of illness by staying home, using good hand hygiene, wearing a mask, not having visitors, etc. I educate the family on how to reduce the risk of infection in their own home. It can be disheartening to watch the news every day and see the number of cases continue to climb, but I know that I can do something in my community to slow those numbers down, one patient at a time.
What should people know if they do get a call from you?
People should not be alarmed if they get a call from me. If I call to tell them they have been exposed to someone with the disease, it is my job to give them guidance. I may ask them to quarantine at home. I may recommend they get tested if they have symptoms. If they had a positive test, I will ask them to isolate in their home to prevent further spread of disease. For the most part, I have found that people want to do their part in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in their homes and in their community.
If someone does need to self-quarantine for two weeks, what does that mean?
It means staying home, not having visitors. It means shopping online or having someone else shop and deliver to the front porch. It means not going out to eat, not going to church. It means taking personal responsibility in stopping the spread of disease.
What would you like people to know about COVID-19?
People are understandably fearful when a new disease emerges because there are so many things we don’t know and understand about the disease. But there are things we can do to reduce our chances of becoming infected and things we can do to prevent the spread of disease if we do become infected.
Stay informed, but get your information from valid sources such as your county health department, your state health department, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When community spread is occurring (as it is now), practice social distancing. Order take-out instead of dining in restaurants. Call friends or use a video chat instead of meeting them in person. Wear a mask when you do go out. Wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands. Clean commonly touched surfaces in your home and in your workplace more often. Stay home when you’re sick.
These are all simple ways we can reduce our risks and slow the spread of disease.
Tell us about yourself.
I am originally from Abilene, Texas. I moved to the San Antonio area in 1991. My husband and I live on a small ranch outside the city of Seguin with our rescue horses and seven dogs. We are members of The Country Church in Marion, where I am the Director of Children’s Ministry. My husband and I are blessed with three adult children who live in San Antonio and New Zealand, and one perfect grandson in New Zealand that we don’t get to see nearly enough. I enjoy traveling, quilting, crocheting, gardening, and fishing.
I have a passion for public health, especially for educating people on how they can prevent disease transmission on a personal level.
Welcome. Glad to know we have someone dedicated in this position and at this time. I pray we all stay safe and get through this. Just curious, why are we so afraid of this virus when the seasonal flu kills so many every year? We have never shut down like this as a response.