Is contact tracing a thing of the past? Many North Carolina health departments, organizations shifting gears

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DURHAM, NC (WNCN) – Contact tracing is still considered a method that likely saved thousands of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The identification of HIV-positive people for contact tracing has been a very effective tool. In fact, it has helped us keep numbers very low on campus,” said Dr. Thomas Denny of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

It was at the beginning when there was a window of five to seven days. But the omicron variant bridged that two to three day gap. This means that by the time you are notified by a contact tracer, you are already at your peak of being sick and contagious.

“You really don’t have a window to interrupt this, and the numbers are so huge that you just can’t recruit that many people to do contact tracing,” Denny said.

Duke, UNC Health and the Orange County Health Department are joining other medical providers as resources once used for contact tracing are needed elsewhere.

“We cannot have all of our essential workers in society sick in the same week. We need to make sure public transportation keeps running and grocery store cashiers are able to help people and hospital workers are able to keep hospitals, daycares and schools running,” he said. Dr. Erica Pettigrew, of Orange County. Medical Director of the Department of Health and Medical Director of Occupational Health at UNC Health Care.

“We need to find a way to flatten the curve by making sure people don’t get this infection at the same time, throughout the same week. We must be able to expand it even though we may not be able to prevent it from affecting so many people.

“Even though omicron seems to be less serious for most people, the fact that it’s so contagious, we’re seeing the absolute number of sick people go up dramatically. And so hospitalizations are definitely going up and putting a lot of stress on the systems of health care of our state, and so we have to find a way to flatten that curve so that we don’t have all of these patients at the same time.

In a statement, UNC Health said:

“The contact tracing process has multiple components and UNC is embarking on a modified approach this semester based on advice from our public health experts who have determined that contact tracing is now less effective in mitigating the spread of the virus. COVID given the high level of transmission of the Omicron variant.

UNC performs a source case investigation on each positive student case. Students receive electronic isolation instructions, including duration based on CDC guidelines, information on excused absences for class, and information on how to access other resources. Students also receive instructions to contact Campus Health if they develop symptoms or if existing symptoms worsen.

Due to the variant’s extensive spread and transmission across the country and region, close contact tracing is not widely used as a mitigation strategy, again thanks to guidance from NCDHHS and the Department of Orange County Health. UNC engages in tracing when there is an event or gathering where an epi link can be made between positive cases or if students at high medical risk are involved. Otherwise, most contact tracing has been halted by UNC.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is also shifting gears. In a statement, he said:

“In North Carolina, many employees support case and contact outreach efforts at the LHD, including more than 1,300 contractors through Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) who provide a variety of COVID- 19. NCDHHS and local health departments have adapted our case investigation and contact tracing staff to provide the best possible outreach based on current pandemic needs, while creating technology tools to provide outreach options and increase efficiency.

NCDHHS and local health departments have adapted case investigation and contact tracing personnel to provide the best possible outreach based on current pandemic needs, while creating technology tools to provide outreach options and increase efficiency.

With the high number of cases and the ability to electronically notify those diagnosed with COVID-19, NCDHHS is moving toward recommending telephone contact tracing in high-priority settings (i.e. the community life, health care and first responders), while recommending digital, least-touch patient case notification for the general public. Most residents who receive a positive COVID-19 test result will receive a text or email detailing what they should do, which includes notifying close contacts or using the NCDHHS webpage link to send anonymous automated notifications. Contact tracers will make phone calls to those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and cannot be contacted digitally as staff allow. Local health departments may offer additional or different services.

Is contact tracing for COVID-19 a thing of the past? Denny said it depends on how the next variant looks and how sick it makes people.

“It forces us to change policy and adapt to that. So it can be confusing, but it’s all about trying to stay ahead of the game as best we can,” he said.

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