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Crunch Time Coming For COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Fernando Salazar, File Photo
Jason Ybarra, chief operating officer, and Dr. Julie Elder, chief medical officer, collect a sample of blood from a patient during a Grace Med drive-though testing site at 11th and Broadway in Wichita, Kansas.

Now that Kansas is slowly reopening, health officials are preparing for what could be a busy few months of COVID-19 investigations.

One of the federal government’s essential criteria for reopening was to have a system to track people who have been physically near a person infected with the coronavirus. It’s a process called contact tracing. Both the state and Sedgwick County are trying to hire and train more people to do the work before the next surge of new cases develops.

Sedgwick County Health Director Adrienne Byrne says contact tracing is nothing new to her staff. Health employees routinely follow up with patients who become infected from about 40 reportable diseases. But she says the COVID-19 crisis is different because it is happening on a much larger scale, and in many locations.

Byrne says 14 fulltime employees are doing contact tracing, and she plans to hire 10 more.

"We are testing more every day, and then with churches reopening and restaurants, we just want to be ready for that surge," Byrne says. "We’ll see how it goes, and I hope we don’t get to a place where we would need more than that."

For every positive COVID-19 case, health officials are required to conduct a contact tracing investigation based on a patient’s activity before getting sick. Byrne says investigators go through the details of the two days before a person develops symptoms and the last day he or she was in public.

"We also go back and try to understand where the person themself may have come in contact with the virus," Byrne says.

Anyone who may have come in contact with the person is supposed to self-isolate/quarantine for 14 days in case exposure leads to an infection.

Sedgwick County is using an automated text system to check on people who are in quarantine to see if they are developing symptoms. Byrne says using the system helps reduce the workload for disease investigators.

"That helps a lot. That takes the place of two or three investigators at least with using that system," she says.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) plans to hire at least 25 people for contact tracing and several others to handle data entry. The investigators generally monitor virus hot spots throughout the state and fill gaps in smaller local health departments as needed.

KDHE Secretary Lee Norman says five employees from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are in Topeka and southwest Kansas to help with the COVID-19 outbreak tied to the state's meatpacking plants.

Norman says the state will get five more CDC employees to help with the expected surge of new COVID-19 cases that will come with reopening Kansas.

"They will be deployed with us for 11 months, and assisting with supporting epidemiology, laboratory and contact tracing," Norman says.

He says 20 KDHE staff are being trained to do contact tracing in Lyon, Ford, Finney and Seward counties. He also wants to add as many as 400 volunteers to help track COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, those counties had at least 1,475 people diagnosed with the disease.

To put contact tracing into perspective, Norman says the first confirmed COVID-19 patient in Kansas in March had more than 400 contacts.

Byrne says contact tracing investigations in Sedgwick County will likely be needed through the end of the year.

"This is not going to slow down anytime soon," she says. "I’m really hoping that ... with the governor’s [reopening] plan, people still proceed cautiously, maintain the 6-foot distancing and keep their hands away from eyes, nose and mouth because [the virus] hasn’t gone anywhere."

Overall, Sedgwick County has 110 health professionals working on the COVID-19 outbreak.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.