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Health Departments Around The State Can’t Keep Up With Contact Tracing

An illustration of people being tracked for a coronavirus outbreak.
Contact tracing is a core disease control measure that has been employed by health officials for decades, according to the Center for Disease Control.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, health officials usually call people who they came into contact with and let them know to quarantine and get tested. But that process, known as contact tracing, is changing around Utah as new cases continue to number in the thousands each day.

The Salt Lake County Health Department added over 100 people to help with contact tracing this summer, but they still had to modify the practice in late August because of capacity issues.

Now, instead of calling everyone who comes into contact with a positive case, they call the person who has COVID-19 and ask them to reach out to anyone they recently encountered. If the person works or lives around others, the department will reach out to their employer as well as everyone in their household to let them know. The department does the same thing for children who are in school.

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesperson for the county’s health department, said the process seems to be working but is not ideal.

“The shared responsibility model is not as thorough, because they’re not infectious disease experts who can ask follow up questions,” Rupp said.

Other health departments are now having to make the switch in the face of rising cases, according to Jenny Johnson, with the Utah Department of Health. She said her office has tried to help departments around the state keep up with contact tracing, but they’ve had to prioritize making calls to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 over those who may have been exposed.

“When you have 4,000 cases each day, it does not matter how many people we have working. We can’t keep up,” Johnson said.

According to health officials, the Southeast Utah Health Department and the Southwest Utah Health Public Health Department both had to modify their contact tracing protocols in the past month.

“We held on to all of our contact tracing for a long time, longer than most of the state was able to,” said Brady Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department. “But three weeks ago we were averaging 60 cases a day, and it was too much to get through so we had to back off and focus on case investigation.”

Bradford said he thinks people are reaching out to their contacts because the health department has been getting calls from people who say they’ve been exposed and want to get tested.

“It’s probably not quite as robust,” he said. “But it still happens to a surprisingly high degree.”

Johnson said UDOH is looking into automating the contact tracing process with an online form that could be used to collect information for people who may have been exposed. The state launched a contact tracing app early on in the pandemic called Healthy Together, but it fell short of expectations. Officials are now considering a free app to help with contact tracing.

Utah health officials reported 2,231 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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