Work for metro contact tracers piles up as coronavirus cases climb

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Health departments across the metro are overwhelmed.

As COVID-19 cases climb, the work for contact tracers has been piling up. Many departments are coming up with creative ways to keep their numbers manageable. 

Hannah Conner, an epidemiologist with Wyandotte County, said for every case of COVID-19, a tracer makes on average three calls. However, that number could be more or less.

In Johnson County, they have expanded their tracing from one person to a team. Their director of epidemiology, Elizabeth Holzchuch, said they’ve had to think quickly about how to best handle the caseload.

“From the early days where we were getting one a day or not even that many to now where we’re getting 125-150 a day — we’ve had to adapt our processes,” Holzchuch said.

Contact tracers in most metro counties are overwhelmed with cases. In Johnson County, many people with no history in public health have stepped up to help.

“We actually pulled in case investigators from throughout our departments, as well as through out the county government,” Holtzchuch said. “People have been pulled off their regular duties to assist sometimes throughout the entire week.”

Wyandotte County also puled people out of work, but are now hiring more. Conner said they also use volunteers from surrounding colleges to work on tracing.

“That was not a sustainable model as cases continued to increase for efficiency and staying on top of everything we realized we needed to hire several full-time people,” Conner said.

In Kansas City, Missouri, the health department is contracting out tracing on top of the employees they’ve already hired. 

In Clay County, Liberty Schools said they are looking to hire their own tracers to ease the burden on their health department. 

While these numbers seem overwhelming, both women said wearing masks and social distancing can help keep caseloads manageable. 

“Our one goal is to try and slow the spread, and now that we’re talking about reopening schools — slowing the spread is more important than ever if we want our kids to go back to school safely,” Holzschuh said.

“We do all have to work together, and our contact tracing is most effective if we can have this manageable number of cases,” Conner said.

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