The flood of new coronavirus cases in Tennessee has swamped contact tracing efforts. Now health officials are considering new tactics to keep up.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1,000 contact tracers statewide have been trying to call everyone who tests positive and coach them through isolation. They also collect phone numbers for people who have been in close contact with the patient and reach out to them so they can quarantine.
The city’s epidemiologists have said keeping up was virtually impossible at the peak of the summer surge. And now, Tennessee’s case count is several times worse. Hamilton County has already suspended contact tracing.
So Metro Public Health in Nashville wants to back off the daily calls and focus on identifying clusters of cases. Dr. Rand Carpenter, chief epidemiologist for Metro, says he’s in discussions with the state.
“We wouldn’t necessarily pay as much attention to individual cases but would investigate hot spots and monitor the trends,” he says.
The city is already experimenting with automated text messages instead of phone calls, following the lead of Fort Worth and Oklahoma. The texts take patients directly to the state’s form for case interviews, which an investigator would otherwise have to fill out.
The state has not authorized any changes in surveillance of COVID-19 cases. But top officials are acknowledging the need for a new game plan.
State epidemiologist John Dunn says, at some point, it doesn’t make sense to track cases down. And right now, contact tracers tell WPLN News they’re often reaching people a week after their isolation period ended.
“What we’re focusing on now is trying to reach people that have the most recent cases so we can interrupt transmission among that group,” Dunn says.
But at this point in the pandemic, Dunn says people should know about isolating and notifying close contacts on their own.