Jun 21, 2020 11:00 AM

Research: States still lack enough contact tracers to slow virus

Posted Jun 21, 2020 11:00 AM
Ashley Peterson is a contact tracer for the Kansas City Health Department. Kansas City Health Department photo
Ashley Peterson is a contact tracer for the Kansas City Health Department. Kansas City Health Department photo

By ALEX SMITH
Kansas News Service

Health experts say that contact tracers—health care workers whose job it is to reach out to individuals who may have been exposed to the coronavirus to instruct them to isolate—are essential to keep COVID-19 from spreading.

But updated research shows that both Kansas and Missouri lack adequate numbers of contact tracers even though both states have been gradually reopening for weeks. Still, some health officials dispute the findings.

While many cities, counties and states have made significant progress in COVID-19 preparedness, many others are still struggling on contact tracing, including Johnson County, Kansas, which has made huge strides in testing but still doesn’t have enough contact tracers.

“Right now, no,” wrote Johnson County health department spokeswoman Barbara Mitchell in an email, explaining that the county is currently understaffed and would be even further strained in the event of a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

Nationally, few states currently have enough of these workers, according to an analysis by NPR using data from George Washington University’s Contact Workforce Estimator.

Kansas currently has 12.33 contact tracers, including reserve workers, per 100,000 residents, short of the roughly 17 per 100,000 needed, according to the analysis.

Missouri, meanwhile, has only .49 tracers per 100,000 residents, well below the roughly 14 per 100,000 needed there, the analysis shows.

However, the NPR analysis for Missouri only includes contact tracers working for the state health department, not those working in county and local health departments. The omission, which was not explained in the NPR report, likely makes the state’s capacity appear much lower than it actually is.

The George Washington University researchers based their estimates of contact tracer needs on 14-day case counts.

Health officials say that efforts to recruit contact tracers have been hampered by lack of funding and the time and effort required to hire and train these workers.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Ashley Jones-Wisner wrote in an email that, so far, the state has generally managed to handle its contact tracing needs.

“Currently, our state has adequate contact tracers to assist local health departments with multiple surges should they request assistance,” Jones-Wisner wrote.

She explained that contact tracing is usually performed by people working in local and county health departments, and that state tracers are only used when local and county workers are overwhelmed.

She says that the state contact tracers, which include dozens of reassigned staff members and volunteers, have only been called upon to help in two local Kansas outbreaks, in Ford and Jackson counties.

Many state and local health departments, including Johnson and Wyandotte Counties in Kansas and Jackson County and the city of Kansas City in Missouri, are currently hiring full-time contact tracers to work on a temporary basis.

Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services did not immediately respond on Thursday to inquiries regarding contact tracers, but some local health departments in the Kansas City area indicated that they were struggling.

The Kansas City, Missouri, health department currently has a total of three full-time workers doing contact tracing, with other staff currently reassigned to do the work part time, according to spokesman Bill Snook.

Kansas City, Missouri has received no state or federal funding for contact tracing, Snook wrote in an email, and is currently funding the work through the local health levy.

Many of the city’s contact tracers have also been experiencing fatigue with the work.

“Some contacts or cases do not understand the need or want to comply our instructions which adds to the stress and emotional, mental and physical toll it takes on the multiple teams working multiple parts of the pandemic response,” Snook wrote in an email.

The Jackson County, Missouri, health department is aiming to complete its contact tracing team during the next two months, according to spokeswoman Kayla Parker.

Parker says the health department plans to have 10 contact tracers per 100,000 residents, which she acknowledges is less than the recommended capacity of 15-30 tracers per 100,000. She notes that the health department did not receive the full amount of federal CARES funding it requested.

She says that lack of public cooperation also continues to derail contact tracing efforts.

“One obstacle we continue to face is resistance from some individuals in the community to provide information,” Parker wrote in an email. “In order to protect our population, it is imperative that people respond to our calls and give their contacts.”

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR 89.3.