State health officials say contact tracing – one of the most useful tools in curbing the spread of COVID-19 – hasn't been effective 25% of the time.
But now the task is back in local hands, where Allen County officials have had better results, said Megan Hubartt, Allen County Department of Health spokeswoman.
Hubartt said Monday five full-time contact tracers had been working local cases before state officials centralized tracing in May to roll out a statewide program. The local tracers resumed all county tracing June 29, she said.
“We felt that our capability was such that we could do it and do it well, and the state agreed,” Hubartt said. In upcoming weeks, the health department plans to hire several more part-time contact tracers.
Contact tracing is a multi-step process that involves calling, texting or sending email to people who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Contacts are given instructions to get tested and quarantine or isolate themselves to avoid spreading the virus.
Dr. Kristina Box, state health commissioner, said last week that 25% of the state's attempts to get in touch with contacts failed because people did not respond or there was incorrect contact information.
In those cases, she said, local health departments were serving as “boots on the ground” to gather the missing information. Box urged Hoosiers to comply with requests. She said contacts are not given specific information about who might have exposed them to the virus.
In Allen County, health department staff members get information within 24 hours of someone testing positive to begin the tracing process, which can include an in-person visit if other methods of contact aren't fruitful, Hubartt said.
Hubartt said local contact tracers follow up with any high-risk contacts – those who have come within 6 feet of a confirmed patient for more than 15 minutes without the use of personal protective measures – to let the person know about their potential exposure, explain the disease and possible symptoms to check for. The staff also ask those people to quarantine for 14 days so they don't spread the virus.
Hubartt said local officials have an advantage over state tracers in that they know specifics of the community and have many local partners who can assist.
“We do not have data on our response rate, but when our team was previously doing all case investigations, we rarely had a case or contact who went unreached,” Hubartt said.
The department has a webpage at www.allencountyhealth.com/covid-19 that provides information about contact tracing.
Box said the state would soon publish tracing statistical information on the state health department's website in a format similar to that of the dashboard used for tracking cases, deaths, tests and hospitalization usage. That site is at www.coronavirus.in.gov/2393.htm.
An additional 35 Allen County residents were reported to have tested positive on Monday, and the health department recorded two additional deaths, bringing the county's totals to 2,825 confirmed cases and 131 deaths.
The state health department Monday announced 330 more confirmed cases of COVID-19. That brings to 48,331 the total number of Indiana residents known to have the virus. An additional five deaths were reported Monday, for a total of 2,505 confirmed deaths, plus an additional 193 probable deaths of people without a positive test.
Intensive care unit and ventilator capacity statewide was reported steady, with 43% of intensive care unit beds and 84% of ventilators available.
United Way of Allen County leaders think they know at least some of the reasons COVID-19 had a big economic impact on county residents.
When the pandemic hit, about one-third of Allen County's 147,638 households were already one emergency away from financial ruin, according to a 2018 agency report on the working poor.
Known as an ALICE report – with the initials standing for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed – the report found about 32,000 households were unable to afford the basics for survival despite having jobs.
The report found an additional 18,000 households were living in poverty – which means just over 1 in 3 county households were already dealing with economic distress.
Wages for ALICE workers in Indiana, many of them considered essential workers in the face of the pandemic, remained largely stagnant, the report found. But the local cost of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and technology increased by 3.4% on average during the last decade, compared with 1.8% in the state as a whole.
ALICE households were therefore locked out of the booming economy and unable to establish savings due to meager pay raises and inconsistent job hours, schedules and benefits, the report says.
Matthew Purkey, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Allen County, said those families are falling through the holes in the safety net.
“The ones on the front line of COVID-19 can also be at greatest health and financial risk. They risk their safety to continually contribute to the economy, earn too much money to receive public assistance, but make too little to meet basic needs,” he said Monday in a statement.
The report, with municipality-specific data, is at www.unitedforalice.org/indiana.