The Sedgwick County Health Department is no longer doing COVID-19 contact tracing investigations.
Health workers are so overwhelmed by the surge in new coronavirus infections that the work of tracking down close contacts was outsourced to the state health department.
The new strategy comes five months into Sedgwick County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With limited testing capabilities and staff, the county has struggled to keep up with community transmission of the respiratory disease.
County Health Director Adrienne Byrne said moving contact tracing to the state was necessary so her staff can focus solely on notifying people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
"The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is going to pick up our case contact tracing for at least the time being because we just can’t do it," she said.
Sedgwick County experienced a surge in coronavirus infections since June. On June 1, 145 people were considered to be “active” cases; this week, at least 2,830 people are infected.
The county’s cumulative COVID-19 case totals jumped from 626 to 4,436 during the same period. The percentage of positive tests went from 2% in June to a high of 13.8% on July 23. This week, that important metric declined slightly to 12%.
"We’ve got to make sure that the person who is symptomatic is staying home, and is not out spreading," Byrne said.
Byrne said it’s taking longer than usual for health workers to notify people who test positive, and for the follow-up work that comes with every active case.
"So we’re not even able to do that to the degree that we usually do because of the onslaught of new cases that keep coming in," she said.
In addition, other staff members are assigned to notifying people who test negative. The daily number of negative cases grew substantially over the past few months as the county increased its coronavirus testing at its drive-thru location and began offering mobile testing opportunities throughout the area.
Byrne says health workers are documenting close contacts when newly positive people provide the information. The department sends letters to let contacts know they were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
"We still get all the names [of close contacts] to enter them into the state system," Byrne said, "so that if they become positive on down the line, we know who they are connected to."
She expects KDHE disease investigators to follow-up on the local cases.
The county health department is still trying to hire about 40 disease investigators, and other medical staff to help with the pandemic response. Byrne says the county is at capacity for its daily coronavirus testing and can’t offer more until a second medical team comes on board.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says case investigation and contact tracing are considered core disease control measures for preventing further spread of COVID-19. The key is taking immediate action.
The CDC recommends identifying and warning close contacts as soon as possible to ensure they do not interact with others. Further, the nation’s top health agency says if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.
CDC staff are already working in Kansas on contact tracing. KDHE announced in May a plan to hire more disease investigators, and to deploy hundreds of volunteers to help track COVID cases statewide.