Pima, Maricopa counties look to grow contact tracing

Contract tracing in Pima County

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Johns Hopkins estimates the US public health workforce needs to add about 100,000 contact tracers to help fight COVID-19. As states start opening up, and testing becomes more available, many are looking at increasing contact tracing, including Arizona and Pima County.

Contact tracing tracks down people who may have been in contact with a person who recently tested positive. Public Health workers will notify those individuals and alert them if they need to get tested or self-quarantine.

The CDC says contact tracing is an important strategy to help eliminate the spread of COVID-19 once states have lower case rates for 14 days, adequate hospital resources and widely available testing.

“It’s really relying on the availability of testing,” said Paula Mandel, deputy director of the Pima County Health Department.

With the recent increase in testing in Arizona, PCHD wants to ramp up its contact tracing abilities. Currently, the department said they have about 30 people working on contact tracing, up from the five staff members normally on the payroll during non-pandemic times, but they’d like to double the amount of tracers in the next few weeks.

“We’ve seen an increase in number of cases with all of the testing blitzes that have been going on the last several weeks,” said Mandel.

PCHD said their plan is not finalized on when or how they will fill those 30 new positions. or who the tracers might be. In March, the University of Arizona announced they would be helping with contact tracing, but declined to do an interview for this story because the details still have not been worked out. UArizona students are working on initial case investigations, which are conducted with the initial COVID positive person. PCHD hopes to have a plan next week, with more guidance from the state.

“Nothing will be finalized in our contact tracing plan, so it’s ever evolving and changing,” said Mandel.

The CDC recommends 33 tracers if a community is seeing an average of 9 cases per 100,000 people a day. So far in May, Pima County has seen an average of 2.6 new cases per 100,000 people a day, according to state health department data. Since the department already has 30 tracers, that’s more than recommended, but as testing increases, and therefore cases, the county wants to be ready.

“We know that COVID is still present. We know that there will still be cases,” said Mandel. “What we’re waiting to see is how well our community continues to do those protective factors.”

Maricopa County has beefed up its contact tracer staff as well, hiring dozens to get staff levels to near 60. They county said they have plans to make more offers this week.

“It is our goal to ensure that by July 1, Public Health has the capacity to contact 400-500 cases a day,” said Marcy Flanagan, executive director of Maricopa County Public Health, in a video briefing.

So far in May, Maricopa has seen an average of 3.6 new cases a day for every 100,000 people, according to state data.

The state health department is partnering with the CDC Foundation to help staff contact tracers around the state. The CDC Foundation said they are hiring seven contact tracers in Arizona and are “currently in (the) recruitment process.” A position for a contact tracer team lead in Arizona is posted on the organization’s website.

“As the nation combats COVID-19, the CDC Foundation is launching and managing an emergency staffing effort as a piece of CDC’s Response Corps’ multipronged approach. The staffing initiative spans state, local, territorial, big city health departments and tribes and tribal communities,” said Amy Tolchinsky, communications director for the CDC Foundation. “We are hiring for a wide variety of positions ranging from epidemiologists to data analysts to contract tracers and more. Less than half of these positions are contact tracers.”

The CDC Foundation said they are hiring 690 positions across 65 jurisdictions around the nation. The jurisdictions determine who to hire, while the Foundation posts jobs, reviews resume applications and screens candidates.

The Arizona State Health Department said Tuesday, they would use funds from a $150 million dollar grant from the CDC to help expand contact tracing, disease surveillance and testing. The state health department did not return our requests for comment.

“This additional funding will support the critical needs of Arizona public health departments as we work with our partners to augment activities to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Cara Christ, ADHS director, in a written statement.

“We will be expecting a second wave. When that occurs, we’re just going to have to wait and see,” said Mandel.

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