OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Many people have tested positive and gone through quarantine without getting a call from a contact tracer. Contact tracing is considered a necessary and proven mitigation effort against disease, but how effective is it during the current COVID-19 crisis surging through Oklahoma?
The week starting on November 5 saw 16,919 new cases. That’s nearly 17,000 positive cases for the approximately 700 contact tracers in the state to call. Then they have to call the thousands more who those people may have infected.
It’s a daunting, and frankly, impossible task. A number of those people will never receive a phone call.
State epidemiologist Dr. Jared Taylor said this is in part because it can take several days for a positive case to be logged with the health department.
After that, contact tracers who are already working on a backlog, may take even longer to reach out to the positive cases.
After a certain point, contacting some positive people becomes moot.
“If it’s outside of the range of us being able to do anything in terms of public health, that means being able to quarantine, isolate the spread if you will, it gets sent to a backlog and you’re notified, but traditionally that’s through a text message,” said epidemiologist Eddie Withers with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
He said OCCHD typically contacts 50-55 percent of positive cases within 24 hours of reporting to OCCHD, and 70 percent are reached within 72 hours of reporting. Withers insists everyone is reached at some point, either with a phone call or a text message.
KFOR has several reports of people inside Oklahoma City who tested positive, and went through or past quarantine without ever being contacted.
There are other limitations contact tracers see. Withers said once tracing moves out of the household, tracing becomes complicated. That’s because it’s not possible to trace strangers who may have been exposed in a public place.
Dr. Taylor said there are also some people who test positive who either are not completely upfront with who they have been in contact with, or they don’t know exactly what constitutes close contact. He said contact tracers need people to be more cooperative in the effort.
“If they are part of that transmission, we need that assistance in being forthright, deliberative in providing us the information, thinking about where they’ve been, and then we need their assistance for compliance in those requests for isolation quarantine,” Dr. Taylor said.
According to the OSDH, $1.19 million of CARES Act funding is spent on contact tracing efforts each month. That money is scheduled to run out by the end of the year. State and local leaders are hoping the federal government will pass another package to dole out next year.
Regardless of whether that happens, Withers said the OCCHD will find a way to keep the about 200 contact tracers it employs, and even bolster that number if possible.
Neither Withers nor Dr. Taylor had concrete solutions for the limitations contact tracers are currently facing. What they want to see is smaller case numbers so that they can contract trace better, a pandemic paradox.
But regardless of the limitations, both said the effort cannot stop now.
“It’s an important piece,” Withers said. “We do have quite a few cases but I think if you remove the contact tracing piece, there would be that much more. We would be worse off.”