Idaho health departments behind on contact tracing

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Public health officials in Idaho have reported delays in contact tracing, and have not been able to accurately report the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state as residents refuse to cooperate among a surge of infections.

The recent surge is not only straining underfunded, understaffed and overworked public health district employees, it also has slowed their ability to track the virus’ spread throughout the state, The Idaho Statesman reported Sunday.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials said before the pandemic created an emergency, communities needed about 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents to prevent transmission of conditions such as HIV and tuberculosis.

Central District Health, comprised of more than 500,000 residents and six hospitals, had 30 people on its contact tracing staff last week. Idaho’s seven health districts have 156 employees on their contact tracing teams, many of whom are part-time and juggling other job duties.

District Director Russ Duke said officials did not believe they would need to ramp up contact tracing as much as they did, “because community restrictions would have to be put in place to protect our hospitals and to keep the virus from getting into our high risk groups such as those residing in long term care facilities.”

Central District Health chief operations officer Bonnie Spencer said the state’s health departments were granted funding to help cover the cost of pandemic, about $6.9 million of coronavirus relief aid was made available.

Central District Health has seen 2,500 to 3,000 cases over the last several weeks, and they’re a few weeks behind, spokesperson Brandon Atkins said. “New resources are coming on board, and they are doing everything they can to keep up with it.”

With contact tracing backlogs, Idaho’s reported case numbers are lower than the reality.

“That’s one of the big fall-downs of not being able to keep up with contact tracing,” Atkins said. “We’re not going to see all the (probable cases) if we’re not doing contact tracing.”

Central District Health had logged 23,343 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,693 probable cases in Ada County as of Thursday.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.