More COVID-19 contact tracers expected to be hired despite little data to show it’s still working

Tracking Coronavirus

OVERLAND PARK, Kan.  — A year into COVID-19 and 28 million American infections later, health officials are still working to trace where people came into contact with coronavirus. 

It’s a task that’s become increasingly difficult, and some local health officials say it’s now nearly impossible to do.  

Even though there seems to be no way to determine if it’s still working, some counties plan to spend more of your tax dollars to expand the program.

If you contract COVID-19, you’ll get a phone call. In Johnson County, Kan., it will be from a case investigator, asking about symptoms, where you went, who could have infected you or you could have infected in the days before your positive test.

It’s the kind of work the county did for about a month in 2018 to control a measles outbreak to 14 people in the county. But in the past 11 months, they’ve tried to trace more than 40,000 cases of COVID-19.

“Public health has never really done contact tracing on this scale for this duration,” said Elizabeth Holzschuh, director of epidemiology with the Johnson County Health Department.

In October as case counts surged, the county’s health director said contact tracers were overwhelmed.

“It’s impossible to keep up with the cases and their contacts,” Johnson County Health Director Dr. Sanmi Areola said.

Johnson County more than doubled its staff to 55 investigators and tracers. It has used CARES Act funding to pay $1.4 million in salaries so far.

“The money could have spent better in any other area really, maybe even providing masks or protecting people that need it, but I think the tracing is a total waste of money for sure,” Joseph Blond said.

Kansas City Health Department officials say of the 17,500 investigations listed as “completed,” most of the time there was no way to figure out a point of origin.

A FOX4 investigation found there are no current plans to measure its effectiveness and no numbers on how many, if any, cases were prevented by contact tracing. One thing Kansas City health officials could tell us: They plan to spend more money to hire more tracers when they get more federal funding.

Contact tracing started out strong when there were stay-at-home orders. People didn’t have as many contacts, and some businesses even agreed to track their customers in case someone came down with COVID-19. 

“I’ve been out and about once since last March, and I’ve only been asked once for my name and number,” Beth Lemark said. 

And many health officials stopped publicizing locations of outbreaks, not wanting to hurt business. Missouri doesn’t list clusters, nor does Johnson County, Kan.

“If we are going to release information about outbreaks, we want to make sure they are truly outbreaks, and they aren’t just happenstance,” Holzschuh said. 

Holzschuh admits contact tracing became more challenging as the disease became widespread and people resumed contact with others.

“When it got to the level that we’ve been at, it’s been very difficult to tease out which one of those three it could have been, or which one of the five places you’ve been,” she said.

A University of Kansas professor is pressing Kansas and Missouri officials to allow technology in place in more than 20 states called Google Apple Exposure Notification.

“In the levels that we have seen the past three months there’s no way we could have kept up with contact tracing. We don’t have the staff or tools to do it without the software that would do it automatically,” professor Brian McClendon said. 

The phone app records when you are within 6 feet of someone else for a period of time. But it’s not mandatory.

“I mean where does it end? Are they going to track everyone?” Alison Dice wondered. 

Holzschuh said a bill allowing Kansans to refuse to talk to contact tracers and block their contact with others who may have been exposed makes her job harder.

“Has it or could it ever get to a point where contact tracing really doesn’t make sense or at least maybe isn’t worth the cost?” Holschuh was asked.

“You know, I think that’s been a really big point of discussion,” she replied. 

But for now, in Johnson County that’s only talk. Contact tracers are currently funded through June.

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