Contact tracing efforts adapt to vaccines, demographics

CARTHAGE, N.C. (WTVD) -- Gone are the days of library call centers, but contact tracing remains a critical tool for slowing the spread of COVID-19.

"It's still very much a tool in the toolbox," said Matt Garner, Moore County Health Director. "The reason it's still important is you may have folks out there that don't know they're exposed and it's a way of notifying them to essentially get them out of circulation."

At this time last year, contact tracing was paramount in containing COVID-19, along with face coverings and social distancing.

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"During the peak of the pandemic, we had about 10 to 12 folks working at any given time," Garner said of Moore County's contact tracing. "Right now, we're about four to six people, but it's one of those things that as case numbers of up, you may see some folks pick that contact tracing baton up again."

With 46% of its residents vaccinated, Moore County is by no means the worst in the state for vaccination rates but Garner admits there is plenty of room for growth, which has also changed the nature of many contact tracing conversations.

"If you're fully vaccinated, which means it's been two weeks since your final dose, you actually don't have to quarantine even if you're in close contact of someone who's tested positive. That's yet again another selling point for vaccination there."

Protocols have also changed in that if an exposed individual is asymptomatic for 10 days, the quarantine can end before the standard 14 days. Quarantine can also end early if the exposed individual gets a negative COVID test starting after their fifth day in quarantine.

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In Wake County, where 57% of the population is fully vaccinated, contact tracing staff has also been reduced. The county has also transitioned from turning libraries into call centers, which was first done last summer.

Statewide, there are more than 1,000 full-time and part-time staff supporting contact tracing efforts thanks to a $35 million federal grant and subsequent partnership with Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC). According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 60% of those contact tracers are Hispanic, Latino and African American, while almost a third are also bilingual.

"We're really trying to see what reaches people," Garner said. "That's working with different age groups and ethnicities."

State officials also provided the following data to show how things have evolved since the start of the pandemic:

  • At the peak of the pandemic (mid-January), the total number of active contact tracers (based on active users in the COVID Community Team Outreach Tool - CCTO) was about 1,708 and the active number of case investigators was about 1,5066 (based on active users in NC COVID). There is certainly some overlap in these staff (i.e. staff that were active users of both software) so it is hard to say an exact number of unique staff as this includes LHD staff in addition to Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative (CCTC) staff. It's estimated more than 2,200 contact tracers and case investigators were working at the peak in January.
  • For the month of January 2021, we had 205,955 cases and 56,054 contacts
  • The lowest case number week in the past month was week of June 20-26 which had 2,590 cases and 1,070 contacts
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