Are 700 COVID-19 Contact Tracers Enough?

Provided by Statista

NASHVILLE, TN – At a press briefing last week, Governor Lee talked about efforts his administration is taking in Chattanooga to test more Hispanics because of a recent spike in cases there.

He was asked why the state has hired just 700 contract tracers when public health experts estimate the state needs about 2,000.

“We just had the highest day of case that we have had since the pandemic began. There is a genuine understanding that COVID-19 is a serious public health crisis for our state. And we take it seriously every single day,” Lee said.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey confirmed the state has 700 contact tracers. Their job is to find out from each new person who tests positive for COVID-19 how many people they may have infected and to contact them.

“One of the metrics that we’ve been watching very closely is how many contacts per case,” Piercey said. When the pandemic first hit, she said the figure was 2 or 3; now it is 7 or 8.

“The Department of Health only tracks active cases,” she said. Institutions like prisons and nursing homes have their own embedded contact tracers.  The state has hired two private agencies to do contact tracing and a third will be added later.

“We are able to keep up but it is something that’s on our radar,” Piercey said.

Since there is no cure, states are left with mitigation efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As economies open up, several states have seen their cases spike and testing along with contract tracing is key to fighting the disease effectively.

Health experts say the most important thing is to track contacts within 48 hours after a person tests positive. The risk of not doing enough tracing or testing is the loss of containment and the pandemic will re-emerge with a vengeance.

A second wave is hitting Florida, Texas, and South Carolina. Recently, the highest number of new cases has been reported in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Tennessee.

New York has 9,600 contact tracers. As of last week, New York is averaging 695 new daily cases. New York can trace that many new infections within 48 hours. Arizona has just 100 contact tracers and an average of 1,740 new cases every day. Arizona would need 8,700 people to trace all the new cases within 48 hours.

The Washington Post reported last week that state public health officials estimated in late April they needed about $4.8 billion to hire and train 100,000 workers for contact tracing. Some health experts say the number is closer to 300,000. In any case, the U.S., like it dawdled with testing, is moving too slowly.

A NPR survey found the number of contact tracers has tripled in the past six weeks, from 11,142 to 37,110, but the total is nowhere near the 100,000 needed.

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