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High case counts change COVID contact tracing

Harder to get to everyone
Posted at 7:08 PM, Feb 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-17 21:08:57-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — In the early days of COVID public health officials tried to contact trace everyone who tested positive. Now some agencies have concluded they just can’t catch everyone so they’re changing strategies.

Health officials depended on contact tracing to help reduce the spread of COVID. The idea was if you tested positive, you’d get a call from a health worker asking who you’ve been around so they can figure out if those contacts could spread COVID too.

But Omicron sent case counts so high health experts concluded they can’t reach everyone so they’d better change priorities.

The Arizona Department of Health Services says it’s reducing contact tracing for the entire population and concentrating on congregate living—places like nursing homes and homeless shelters where populations are most vulnerable and close quarters make it especially easy for the virus to spread.

Pima County Health Director Doctor Terry Cullen says Pima County is still working to contact trace anyone who tests positive but gives some settings an extra priority.

“The predominant impetus for contact tracing at the current time is our school-based cases and our congregate living cases. Both of those continue to be very high risk situations. And we continue to do contact tracing in them.”

Doctor Cullen says last month the county was hitting a thousand new cases a day. Unless someone refuses to co-operate—and some do refuse—a tracer may learn of two or three others to call. The phone call itself might average 20 minutes.

Doctor Cullen says, “That means we would have had one thousand cases to investigate and two to three thousand contacts. That was not happening then. So to be frank, while we say we are still conducting contact tracing. In the midst of those very high numbers, people were not being contacted.”

She says more recent case counts have fallen but they are still well above levels regarded as dangerously high.

Doctor Cullen says more than data is lost when people don’t hear from contact tracers. The tracers can offer advice on how best to quarantine and where to find services that can help get through their COVID cases.