There is not much ‘tracing’ in Florida’s COVID-19 contact tracing program

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Contact tracing can break the chain of disease transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House calls contact tracing “one of the state’s primary preparedness responsibilities” in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia’s prime minister credits diligent contact tracing for keeping his country’s coronavirus death toll at just under 1,400.

But while Florida spends tens of millions of dollars on contact tracing, it can’t say whether the program is helping slow the coronavirus.

The state’s health ministry does not know how many calls have gone through its contact tracers because it does not track them, a spokesperson for the department told the Tampa Bay weather in spring. Since then, the state has not responded to more recent requests for information.

Additionally, Florida only does part of the contact tracing work as outlined in the CDC guidelines.

Armed with a list of people who have tested positive, contact tracers must call them, notify them of the test results, get a list of people they have been in contact with, and then reach out to alert those people, according to the CDC. .

In Florida, callers are asking many infected people to contact their contacts themselves.

This graphic from the Florida Department of Health asks people infected with COVID-19 to inform their contacts themselves. [ Florida Department of Health ]

This practice raises two questions: Will patients be reluctant to admit to others that they have COVID-19 and to make calls themselves? And does that conflict with advice from federal civil rights attorneys that callers should refrain from identifying the patient – nearly impossible if the patient is calling?

It is not clear if the Florida contact tracers ever called anyone other than the patient. Ministry of Health job postings for vacancies make no reference to communicating with a patient’s contacts, only interviewing patients, establishing a list of their contacts, and providing information and recommendations to patients.

Contact tracers in Florida tell patients to “alert people you have been in close contact with during your illness that you have tested positive” and “tell them to self-isolate for 14 days.” The state defines “close contact” as anyone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.

Gov. Ron DeSantis made his thoughts about the contact tracing clear in March, speaking to reporters during an appearance in Palm Harbor.

“I think we have to admit that the contact tracing just didn’t work, okay? Said DeSantis.

But contact tracing can work, said Thomas Hladish, a researcher at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, who previously worked as a software developer and epidemiologist at the state Department of Health.

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Related: Will Florida continue to fund local coronavirus contact tracing? The state will not say it.

It’s not working in Florida because the state has failed to create a comprehensive strategy for contact tracing – a task it has described as Herculean.

“It’s like showing up in a burning house with a water gun and saying that water doesn’t put out fires,” Hladish said. “You didn’t do it right in the first place.”

Judie and Matt Faivre of Trinity waited for a contact tracer to call them after contracting the coronavirus in September and quarantined for two weeks at home.

The couple, in their 60s, had been careful to limit their exposure to the virus as Matt has underlying health issues. They still wear masks, even today, and got vaccinated in January. They believe they contracted the virus when Matt first performed with his band in a year one day and attended a vigil the next day.

No contract tracer has ever called.

“I was surprised,” said Judy Faivre. “My friend in New York, her sister contracted COVID and was on the phone for two hours giving them all kinds of information. “

Even though they only call the patient, contact tracers are overwhelmed with a workload of 100 to 150 per day, said Dr Douglas Holt, director of the Hillsborough County State Health Unit.

“At the end of the day, contact tracing is not effective or designed (for) the level or number of cases that we are seeing,” Holt said. “But that doesn’t stop us from trying to reach everyone as quickly as possible.”

Another challenge is trust. Caller ID will often label contact tracers as “Florida Department of Health,” but sometimes as “potential spam” because many of them work from remote locations, Holt said. Real crooks have also made people suspicious, so they hang up or hesitate to answer questions.

Related: DeSantis says contact tracing hasn’t worked. So why is Florida paying for this app?

At the start of the year, 4,400 people statewide were involved in contact tracing, said Alberto Moscoso, a former spokesperson for the health ministry. The breakdown was 2,600 government employees and 1,800 contract workers, including 412 public health students and 645 workers provided by private health and human services contractor Maximus.

“The need for contact tracers is continually assessed and adjusted as needed based on the number of cases,” Moscoso said.

Moscoso spoke to Times in the spring and the figures quoted from the beginning of the year. He has since left the agency. The state and its county branches did not respond to several requests for more recent numbers, or interview requests to further explain their efforts.

To stop the spread of the disease, communities would need 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. This means that Florida, with a population of 21.5 million, would need approximately 6,443 contact tracers, or 2,000 more than it has.

It is not known how many contact tracers are currently working for the state. Maximus spokesperson Liz Halloran confirmed in an email that the company’s contract with the Florida Department of Health ended more than six months ago, on March 31.

Related: Coronavirus Tracking: Florida Turns To Students For Help With Contact Tracing

A measurement of calls made by contact tracers in Florida indicates they have dropped dramatically after the summer wave that followed the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020.

In a report to the state, contractor Maximus said his contact tracers made 535,136 statewide calls in July 2020, but less than half that number the following month.

A earnings report Maximus sent to shareholders in February 2020 placed the value of his contract with the Florida Department of Health at $ 73 million over six months. This is in addition to the $ 138 million DeSantis has set aside to support “not only contact tracing, but other staff,” he said in a 2020 Budget announcement.

Meanwhile, Florida – with a population of 21.5 million – last week recorded 1,719 deaths from the coronavirus. This is more than Australia, with 26 million people, has recorded since the virus outbreak 19 months ago.

CORRECTION: Thomas Hladish is a researcher at the University of Florida. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described his job.

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