Health Departments strain to trace COVID contacts

Health Departments strain to trace COVID contacts

AREA HEALTH departments are straining to their limits to reach multiple people who have been in contact with the ever-increasing number of new COVID-19 patients, often hiring additional employees whose sole duty is to trace those contacts.

Robert Sproul, deputy director at the Belmont County Health Department, said contact tracing has become the major duty of his office’s staff. Workers also reach out to local school districts to assist in tracing people who might have been exposed to coronavirus-positive individuals.

“We have two contact tracers. Their job is actually contact tracing,” Sproul said, adding that public health emergency preparedness personnel also assist. “My fiscal officer, my secretary and myself are also doing contact tracing, and my director of nursing does contact tracing. We have quite a few people.”

Sproul said the two workers devoted entirely to tracing work part time and are paid from state funding. The two have been working at the health department for four months.

“We’ve got a (third) contact tracer coming on board. … We had to hire a new one just because of the volume,” Sproul said.

“We’re having some issues on getting through to people. I don’t know if that’s because people, if they don’t recognize a number, they’re not picking up the phone. We’re trying to leave messages,” he said. “We will call back multiple times, trying to reach them.”

Garen Rhome, administrator at the Harrison County Health Department, said his office has been similarly occupied since before having its positive first case of the virus in April.

“The nurses here do it every day for (sexually transmitted diseases), for lyme disease, for all sorts of things. Contact tracing is right in our wheelhouse. It’s one of the main things public health does,” he said.

The full-time nursing director and one other nurse usually handle tracing.

“We’ve ramped up our contact tracing capability. Capacity has seen a major increase,” Rhome said. “We have three individuals who are doing it absolutely full time, that means more than 40 hours per week. We have expanded that tracing capacity within the employees that we already have within the department to include at least three others at part-time level hours.

“We’ve also worked very closely with the two nurses at Harrison Hills City School District,” he said. “When we have cases associated with the school, they are right on it to help us identify quickly and specifically the classmates and the sports teams’ close contacts.”

“Just in the last week, we are using the Ohio Department of Health contact tracing pool,” he said, “a group of hundreds of folks who have been hired or contracted by the Ohio Department of Health.”

“It’s gone from basically one individual who would do it pre-COVID to nine individuals,” he said. “The Ohio Department of Health put out grant funding directly to local health departments … to ramp up their contact tracing.”

More staff were needed for contact tracing in Monroe County as well.

“(Last week) we have hired two new people to help us with contact tracing because of our increase in cases. We are dependent on state funding for that,” Linda Masters, administrator at the Monroe County Health Department, said. “They are intermittent employees. They can work up to 1,000 hours a year as we need them. Right now, they’re part time.”

“We’ve budgeted in four more in case we need them with the coming winter months. We’ve got four or five of our regular staff also doing contact tracing along with their regular jobs. It’s been quite taxing. … We are right now able to keep up with it. It’s starting to become overwhelming.”


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