Contact tracing: Is Ohio prepared?

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COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Is the State of Ohio prepared for another outbreak of COVID-19?

It is an important question with a lot of complexity to the answer.

One of the first things authorities have to do, in getting to the root of the answer is to find out if there are enough people to do the necessary contact tracing.

According to the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), there are about 1,400 people at the local level conducting contact tracing efforts. These individuals seek out people who are potentially infected by someone who has COVID-19.​

The state has hired an additional 100 people and trained them to support those 1,400 if help is needed. Why would they need to help? The short answer is, if an outbreak were to occur, the local contact tracers may become overwhelmed with too many cases and people to track down.​

Right now, ODH is operating on an estimate of need for contact tracers at 15 per 100,000 people. In a state with about 11 million people, that is roughly 1,650 contact tracers. They are almost to that point with the 1,400 locals plus the extra 100 at the state level.​ That estimate is one of several that is out there.

Estimates are not exact, some are more and some are less. A contact tracking workforce estimator developed at the George Washington University figures Ohio’s need at 2,726, for instance.​ There are so many variables that go into the estimate, it is unlikely to find one definitive answer.​

Working off of its own metrics, ODH feels the 15 per 100,000 amount is sufficient for now. That number may change in the future and it says the state is prepared to bring in more people.​

Things have been getting busier and busier for contact tracers and the need for them has been increasing since the state reopened the economy and modified the Stay at Home order. Now, as more people venture out into public they are surrounded by more potential for infection, other people. ​

When everyone was asked to stay at home, the average number of contacts an infected person would typically have is two or three, according to Joanne Pearsol, the deputy director for Performance and Innovation at ODH.​

Now that the state has reopened, that number of people possibly infected by an individual is commonly up around 10-12, if not more. Each case is unique of course. Someone who runs to the store may actually only interact with two to three people, while another person who goes out to a crowded bar, or a protest, or a family gathering, may potentially expose many more.​

Using 14-day case counts, the estimator developed at George Washington University shows Ohio has roughly 400 new COVID-19 cases per day. It shows Franklin County as the highest in the state when it comes to average new daily cases at 90.​

The numbers mean, when the math is done, 400 new cases daily divided by an estimate of the population of the state; the result is an average of around 0.0036% of the State is having a test come back positive every day over the last two weeks.​ That does not sound like much, but every single one of the 0.0036% of the population is a person, with a family, and some of them may die.​

As for the 90 new cases per day in Franklin County, that is twice the state average (90/1.3million) at 0.0069%. ​

According to the Columbus Public Health 90 new cases every day for two weeks is not too much to handle. It has an army of 200 contact tracers that are investigating and reaching out to potentially infected people.

The organization provided the following statement Monday:​

“Currently, we are staffed appropriately to successfully conduct these investigations to protect the health and safety of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we do not need any more case and contact investigators at this time, we are continually monitoring the situation to make sure we are properly staffed to meet the needs of the community.”​

According to Pearsol, she “isn’t losing any sleep at night over this.”​

It takes several hours to interview an individual who tests positive for COVID-19 to begin the contact tracing process, and these professionals are experienced performing this task. Contact tracing has been a tried and true method employed in infectious disease control for years.​

With 90 new cases per day, Columbus Public Health could afford to put two people on each case. After the initial interview is done, if it created 10 possible individuals to contact, they could split that into five each.​

The toughest part about the contact tracing is actually reaching the people that were potentially infected and getting them to answer the phone. Some are also hesitant to help provide information about whom they have been in contact.

That is why ODH wants people to know that all information provided during the contact tracing is confidential. What they need is people to be open and honest with the tracers so they can locate people that may have been infected as quickly as possible.​

Once the tracers get in contact with people who are potentially infected, they can provide guidance about what to do next, and how to protect their loved ones from also catching the disease. That means, time is of the essence. ​

Right now, in Ohio, things are relatively calm when compared to other parts of the country.​ Franklin County’s 90 new cases per day is dwarfed by Maricopa County in Arizona, which has seen 673 average new daily cases over the past two weeks, according to the Contact Tracing Estimator. That county has roughly four times as many people living in it as Franklin County does and its new cases are nearly seven times higher.​

Coronavirus in Ohio resources:

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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