Alaska’s contact tracing system ‘strained statewide’ with a surge of COVID-19 cases

Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 6:59 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s contact tracing system is under stress after a surge of COVID-19 cases across the state.

“Our workers have been strained statewide,” said Tari O’Connor, a deputy health director of the Division of Public Health. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says contact tracing is an important way to slow the spread of an infectious virus. When someone tests positive for COVID, everyone close to them is contacted to recommend whether they should quarantine or get tested.  

A big jump in COVID cases, means there are more people to call. 

O’Connor said when someone currently tests positive in Alaska, they’re told to notify their own close contacts. Contact tracers are also prioritizing calling people determined to be at-risk for COVID.

At the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials were able to check-in multiple times to monitor a contact’s symptoms and see whether they should be tested. “At this point, you’re not getting the monitoring every day,” O’Connor said. 

The Anchorage Health Department says that the municipality’s contact tracing “has been pushed beyond max capacity” for over a month.

As of June 30, there were 40 people working as contact tracers in Anchorage. Barry Piser, a spokesperson for the Anchorage Health Department, said there are hopes the department will be able to hire more people soon.

“To help build better ongoing capacity, AHD is recruiting for 10 new full-time contact tracing team members and five temporary positions to help with contact tracing and administrative functions to support the team,” Piser wrote by email. 

But there are challenges coming, too. The health department has hired 15 school nurses to work as contact tracers but they’ll need to go back to work for the Anchorage School District, starting Aug. 11. 

Across Alaska, the system is not beyond its capacity but it is under stress. 

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said on Tuesday that Alaska’s recent COVID case count means ”currently, we’re not able to contact the majority of people within 24 hours.”

Robert Barr, the planning chief with the Juneau Emergency Operations Center, explained that public health officials want contact tracing to happen as quickly as possible to ensure that asymptomatic people know they might be at risk. 

“We want to be able to hit those contacts within a 24-hour target and statewide, we’re not,” Barr said, before explaining most calls in Juneau are being made within 48 hours. 

The State of Alaska has been working to hire more contact tracers over the past few months. 

There are currently 190 contact tracers working for the state. Two hundred more have been trained virtually, most by the University of Alaska Anchorage College of Health which has been partnering with the state.

“We have more than 500 (contact tracers) in the pipeline,” O’Connor said. The people who were just trained at UAA will now train the next set of applicants. 

There are some legal agreements to sign with partnering organizations and some on-the-job training to do before the 700-plus trainees start work. There is no timeline when they should all be working. “It’s a little hard to predict at this point,” O’Connor said. 

The state has also got a new data management tool online in the past two weeks that will help coordinate contact tracing while also guarding confidential health data. 

“We expect the number of staff that we’re adding on a weekly basis to be much faster than it has been to date,” O’Connor said. 

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.