By MICHELLE L. PRICE, Associated Press
Health investigators across the United States are finding it nearly impossible to keep up with the deluge of new COVID-19 infections and to conduct contact tracing efforts that were once considered a mainstay of the national response to the pandemic.
States are hiring new staff and looking for volunteers to bolster the ranks of contact tracers who have been overwhelmed by the upsurge in coronavirus cases.
Some states cut back on their contact tracing teams this spring and summer when the virus count was down and are now scrambling to train new investigators. Others have sorted their teams to focus on the most vulnerable, such as cases involving schools or children too young to be vaccinated.
Texas has pulled out of the business altogether, with the new two-year state budget that goes into effect Sept. 1 explicitly prohibiting the use of funds for contact tracing. That has left it to local health officials, but they can’t keep up at a time when Texas is averaging more than 16,000 new cases a day.
Mississippi has 150 full-time employees to identify people who have been in close contact with an infected person, but they are also overwhelmed.
“Often by the time cases are reported, transmission has already occurred by the time we reach that person,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers.
Since the start of the pandemic, states have relied on the practice of contact tracing to trace, notify and monitor those who have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Dr Yvonne Maldonado, professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine, said that while contact tracing can be time consuming, especially if one person has potentially exposed many people, “Ultimately, it prevents further cases.
Maldonado said it was a “staple of public health” and may be the only way someone would find out that a stranger had potentially exposed them to the disease.
The response to contact tracing has varied from state to state throughout the pandemic.
New York, which has had a strong team, has adjusted its contract research staff to the waves of the pandemic. The state had more than 8,000 contract tracers in February and March of this year, but now has 3,860 employees working on contract finding. That doesn’t include New York City, which has its own $ 600 million research initiative with thousands of employees.
Arkansas hired two outside companies, General Dynamics Information Technology and Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, to handle investigations for the state. The companies have about 257 people currently working and each trying to add about 100 more.
In Louisiana, another hotspot for the virus, state officials have added 130 people in recent weeks to their staff working on contact tracing. They now have over 560 people working on the research efforts.
In Idaho, a new public health website, VolunteerIdaho.com, encourages people with health care skills or a simple willingness to volunteer for the Idaho Medical Reserve Corps. Among the volunteers they are looking for there are people who can with contact tracing and data entry
Health officials say that with the overwhelming number of new cases, they are unable to track every case and instead try to focus on infections that could have exposed large numbers of people or vulnerable groups.
This is the case in Alabama. Dr Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Health said her agency encourages anyone who has tested positive or at risk to follow isolation and quarantine guidelines and to notify anyone they have been in close contact with, but the Department of Health focuses its resources on larger outbreaks, clusters and group settings.
In Nevada, investigators are prioritizing their efforts on cases involving children or schools, according to Julia Peek, assistant administrator of community health services in the Nevada Department of Health.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott last year approved a $ 295 million contract with a company to perform contact tracing for the state, but the deal has sparked a conservative backlash and a lawsuit from lawmakers who have said the governor had overstepped his authority in approving the deal with the legislature. was not in session.
Abbott ultimately won the lawsuit, but the contact tracing funds were taken out of the new budget.
Local governments say they are continuing their efforts and are trying to increase numbers as cases increase. In Austin, for example, the local health department had about 50 investigators working on contact tracing during the height of the pandemic. But when cases declined, they reduced their staff to 12, according to Austin Public Health spokesperson Matt Lara.
In California, state officials have been dispatched to help county health teams work on contract research. At the height of the pandemic, Los Angeles County had around 2,800 people working on the effort until this spring when cases started to decline, said True Beck, a public health worker who manages a team of contract plotters for the county.
Beck said that in the spring some staff were reassigned to make calls encouraging people to get vaccinated and others were fired from their regular jobs in other county departments, but lately they have brought people back and have about 1,000 working.
She said the work is hard and the calls, which can last for an hour, can be emotional. Workers doing contract research calls not only help people know what to do to keep themselves and others safe, but they can also hear from people who are afraid, who feel lonely, who are in mourning or who need help, such as paying rent or feeding themselves. Beck said the staff on his team try to help and connect people with other resources.
“It’s hard to do this day in and day out by calling complete strangers,” she said.
She said people are not as eager to speak or do interviews as they were earlier in the pandemic, when there was a lot more fear and unknowns about the virus.
“Now I think people are a little tired of COVID. I think we all are, frankly. “
Follow Price on Twitter at twitter.com/michelelprice. Associated Press editors Leah Willingham in Jackson, Mississippi, Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report .
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.