NC health departments alter methods, contact tracing prioritization as COVID-19 cases rise

As North Carolina grapples with record-breaking COVID-19 case counts, local health departments are finding new ways to conduct contact tracing.

"We are prioritizing those that come in last, so they are out first. The reason for the last-in, first-out approach is so that we can do those in a much more timely manner. We're prioritizing those that are in congregate living settings, those that are in healthcare settings, and those that are associated with outbreaks and clusters," said Dr. Jennifer Green, Cumberland County's Director of Public Health.

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This change is due in part to time constraints amid fast-rising case counts.

"We have approximately 160 new cases every day. That's far too many. It takes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes per interview to do that. So when you have that large number of cases, we can't contact trace or case investigate effectively. We've trained many staff, and gotten assistance from the state health department, but we are beginning to prioritize our cases," said Dr. Green.

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The state and local public health departments are also altering their methods of contact, using text and e-mails as well as phone calls.

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"Even as we prioritize cases for investigation, we're working to make sure that (people) get notified either (via text, email, call). And then in addition providers and laboratories have a role as well that they're notifying their patients of their positive result," said Dr. Green.

Wake County recently began using text messages and e-mails to reach out to people, while a Johnston County spokesperson told ABC 11 that 60% of people receive their notifications digitally.

Both Wake County and Orange County health departments said they have not had an issue performing contact tracing; Orange County has the second-lowest case rate in the state, while Wake County is also experiencing lower rates than most counties.

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A State Health Department spokesperson told ABC11 that "all residents who have provided cell phone or email addresses will receive an automatic text or email message to connect people to follow-up resources and supports. People receiving a text or email are directed to a secure website that provides additional information about how to protect themselves and their loved ones, how to get support if needed to safely isolate and how to contact someone immediately for additional information."

So far, 618,242 people have downloaded the SlowCOVIDNC app. To this date, 519 people have reported a positive test result via the app, which has led to 1,758 exposure notifications.

State health officials continue to brace for another bump in cases over the next couple weeks stemming from holiday travel.

"We anticipate that surge from Christmas isn't quite fully here yet. This week and next week, we'll really begin to see the increase in cases," said Dr. Green.

To counter that, they continue to encourage people to follow the 3 W's and participate in contact tracing, reminding people that staff do not reveal personal information when performing outreach.

"We need the community's participation with us. We cannot do it alone. Our hospital can't do it by themselves. It's a team effort at this point," said Green.
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