Panhandle Health as much as seven days behind in contact tracing, official says

KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — Changes are coming to Panhandle Health as the contact tracing backlog grows.

If you want an order to get tested for COVID-19, you have to go to your primary care doctor. They won’t give you one unless you have no health insurance and you don’t have a primary provider. Health officials said they took on the task of giving out orders when offices closed at the start of the pandemic.

“Our call center really became overloaded with people wanting an order for a test, even after their doctor’s office had reopened,” said Katherine Hoyer, Public Information Officer with the Panhandle Health District. “Our clinical staff were unable to perform any other clinical functions because they were 100% focused on just writing orders.”

In Idaho, the state requires an order for a test — similar to a referral. If you don’t have one, you can’t get tested unless you go to an emergency clinic.

They hope the change chips away at the backlog. Hoyer said they’re as much as seven days behind in contact tracing. Before making the changes, they had 15 contact tracers.

“We have been able to train some of our medical reserve corps volunteers,” Hoyer said. “We’ve trained up some additional staff.”

Now, they have as many as 70.

They’re also keeping an eye on the trends they’re seeing.

“We’ve been focused on very much social settings where we’ve seen people not taking the proper precautions,” Hoyer explained. “So really it is those social gatherings where we’re seeing the most sort outbreaks, if you will.”

The increase in cases is another concern.

“We’re in our second or so-ish week where we’ve seen double-digit cases every single day,” Hoyer said.

On Tuesday, Panhandle Health reported a total of 914 cases across the five counties it covers. In Kootenai County, 778 people have tested positive. 477 of those are active cases.

Out of the new cases, 42% of the people showed symptoms when the health district initially contacted them, according to Hoyer.

She added that the younger population may not be taking it seriously or aren’t totally aware of the dangers. 313 people between 18-29-years-old have tested positive between the five counties.

The health district wants to see people taking the necessary steps to protect themselves and others.

“Focusing on our contract tracing is to slow in the spread of the virus, but that takes everyone taking responsibility and really taking the precautions seriously,” Hoyer said.