Johnson County Ends COVID-19 Contact Tracing Efforts

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A medical technician seals a coronavirus test. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – After nearly two years, Johnson County Public Health ended its COVID-19 contact tracing efforts this week.

The county public health department on Tuesday ended contact tracing and investigations into coronavirus disease after the huge number of new infections reported in recent weeks.

Linn County ended its contact tracing program on December 31, citing an overwhelming number as well.

Sam Jarvis, community health manager at Johnson County Public Health, said staff “strongly believe” in the need to keep the public informed about the virus.

“But with the recent exponential increase in transmission, these efforts are probably less effective,” he said. “It’s hard to put our arms around.

“Making this decision to step down is not a good feeling,” he said. “It looks like a retreat.”

Johnson County has seen a record number of new COVID-19 cases this week, reporting 1,711 positive tests on Friday, according to the latest coronavirus data from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

This is the highest seven-day total the county has seen since COVID-19 arrived in Iowa in March 2020.

Some days the county sees more than 300 new cases, Jarvis said.

The county’s seven-day positivity rate is around 22%, up from 12% last week, state data showed.

The increase in the number of cases has made it difficult for contact tracers to reach residents in a timely manner, with a delay of seven to 10 days in some cases, he added.

Linn County

Other public health departments in the state and nationwide have made similar decisions after the rise in the number of new cases made it nearly impossible to find contacts in a timely manner.

Linn County Public Health, in ending its program on Dec. 31, cited challenges similar to those in Johnson County.

“Contact tracing is really meant to prevent the spread of disease in a specific area,” Eric Bradley, Linn County deputy director of public health, told The Gazette. “Whether or not we continue to trace contacts, it will continue to spread. “

The Iowa Department of Public Health ended its routine contact tracing for individual COVID-19 cases statewide in August, switching to the model used to track influenza cases instead.

‘Heartbreaking’

Jarvis called the end of the contact tracing “heartbreaking,” but said public health officials are proud of their efforts in the response to the pandemic.

Johnson County leads the state in immunization, with 70% of the county’s population fully vaccinated on Friday.

As of December 31, Jarvis said, about 50% of the county’s young residents, aged 5 to 11, were fully immunized.

In Linn County, 63 percent of the total county population are vaccinated.

Statewide, 59% of people in Iowa are vaccinated, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Johnson County Public Health will continue to focus its efforts on educating and informing the public about the latest COVID-19 guidelines.

Public health workers, Jarvis said, are also available to answer questions from the public about positive test results or potential exposures.

The department, he said, is asking the public to practice a multi-layered mitigation approach to slow the spread of the virus.

This includes vaccination and a booster, wearing face coverings in public, regularly testing for COVID-19, and staying home if you have symptoms.

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