MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19, it sets off a race against the clock to identify and quarantine anyone that person may have come into contact with.
Sometimes, it feels like a losing battle, with the effort hampered by a lack of resources, the maddening qualities of the novel coronavirus and sometimes even the attitudes of the people health workers are trying to aid.
The work falls to a small band of public health employees called contact tracers. Demand for their services exploded when the pandemic reached Alabama. Carrie McNair, an environmental health specialist who has been retrained as a contact tracer, counts some success.
“We started at the first of the month with a backlog of all the contact names received in April,” she said. “So, we’re actually caught up.”
A separate unit called the case investigation team interviews COVID-19 patients after getting a report from a laboratory or a doctor’s office. Those workers gather contact information for the people they live with and work with, in addition to “six-fifteeners.” That would be anyone who was 6 feet or closer to them for at least 15 minutes.
Then the contact tracers go to work trying reach all of those folks to tell them of a possible infection so they can quarantine themselves and get tested.
Before the outbreak, the Mobile County Health Department had two full-time employees who chased down those leads from people who contracted infectious diseases. The department has shifted employees form other divisions to boost that number to 11 and plans to retrain an additional 11 employees.
Still, the need is great for a variety of reasons. First, Mobile Count has more had more than 1,800 infections, the most in the state. Second, people can be contagious for days before they develop symptoms, if they ever do. That increases the number of potential contacts to track down.
Rendi Murphree, the director of the Mobile County Health Department’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services, said the rule of thumb among epidemiologists is that one person infected with the novel coronavirus will infect three others. That is a number that fluctuates depending on how faithfully people are adhering to the social distancing guidelines developed by state and federal officials.
McNair, a health inspector who has been shifted to contact tracing, said COVID-19 patients are not always cooperative.
“Some people definitely are guarded with the information. They just flat out don’t want to really talk to you, and they’re definitely not gonna share any contacts with you,” she told FOX10 News. “And so, we can just hope that, you know, they have been practicing social distancing and that they are under quarantine already.”
McNair said contact tracers have received the names of 700 close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Mobile County. She said contact tracers make three attempts to make contact before writing a person off.
McNair said the people contact tracers have reached make it obvious how contagious the disease is. She said the team has reached 75 percent of the names that staffers have received and that a quarter of those people already had tested positive for the virus, themselves.
Contact tracing has been an issue all over the country. Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris has said the state may need hundreds of extra contact tracers. But Dr. Karen Landers, the assistant state health officer, told FOX10 News that the Health Department has no immediate plans to hire any beyond the 120 who currently are doing the work. She added that employees working other jobs can be shifted with training that lasts as little as a day.
What’s more, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said at a news conference Thursday hailed a partnership between the state and Google and Apple to augment contact tracing with and automatic “exposure notification” system developed by the technology companies.
“Hopefully, this will become an important tool in the toolkit to slow the spread of coronavirus by using what almost every Alabamian has in their pocket – a cell phone,” she said.
Long term, Murphree said, the issue will be money. She said the department has worked up preliminary numbers estimating that the annual cost of the contact tracing that’s currently under way would be about $3.6 million. And that’s all money that was not built into the current budget.
“That’s a really big number,” she said. “So we’re working on trying to prepare for opportunities to apply for, you know, additional funding.”