Contact tracers are key to stopping another surge in cases. Does St. Louis have enough? - Bio-Defense Network
May 2020

Contact tracers are key to stopping another surge in cases. Does St. Louis have enough?

Michelle Munz writes in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the St. Louis area public health officials are working to ramp up contact tracing, a key to reopening businesses safely and preventing another surge of COVID-19 cases.

(NOTE: Bio-Defense Network is assembling a cadre of public health, nursing and allied health students and recent grads to conduct remote contact tracing on an hourly basis.)

Health departments, so far, have heavily relied on volunteers and switching staff members from their usual duties to perform the labor-intensive process of tracking and monitoring the contacts of infected people.

Now officials say they are hiring more staff, including 100 contact tracers in hard-hit St. Louis County. Other improvements include developing ways for tracers to work at home.

It’s hard to estimate how many will be enough, officials say. It depends on several factors: How much will testing increase? Will people limit the spread of the disease by staying six feet apart? Will they continue to work at home? How many will travel?

“Having so much that still remains unknown is a challenge in and of itself,” said Samantha VanNatta, an epidemiologist with the St. Charles County Department of Public Health. “We are operating the best we can with the knowledge that we have.”

While several states are hiring hundreds of contact tracers, according to a survey by NPR, it appears no such statewide plan is in the works in Missouri.

Gov. Mike Parson’s office and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services did not respond to requests for information.

But one nonprofit group working with local health departments says the state is surveying the departments to determine how many tracers they have and identify areas of greatest need. It is difficult to determine, however, because staff members are juggling contact tracing in addition to their regular jobs, says Larry Jones, executive director of the Missouri Center for Public Health Excellence.

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