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Health

Idaho Public Health Districts Are Hiring Back Contact Tracers As Cases Climb

New York City contact tracing
John Minchillo
/
AP
FILE — In this Aug. 5, 2020, file photo, Maryama Diaw, a contact tracer with New York City's Health + Hospitals battling the coronavirus pandemic, sets up her remote calling system at her home before reaching out to potential patients, in New York.

With cases of COVID-19 again spiking in Idaho, some public health districts are hiring back contact tracers they had reassigned or let go this spring.

Southeastern Idaho Public Health nearly doubled its department to 11 this week, down from its peak of 18 over the winter.

Geri Rackow, director for Eastern Idaho Public Health, said they currently have eight tracers on staff with the ability to immediately reassign six others. If cases continue to grow, Rackow said she would hire more.

Some people with COVID-19 have been hesitant to talk to district investigators. She had a message for them.

“If people [have COVID-19] … and choose not to take our phone calls, that they just themselves reach out to people that they know they’ve been in contact with and let them know of the situation,” Rackow said.

Other districts are in much more of a bind. Panhandle Health District cut its number of tracers to just two, but wants to hire more.

Kootenai Health, the largest hospital in that district, delayed non-emergency surgeries for up to two months as beds fill back up with COVID patients – nearly all of them unvaccinated.

Here’s how all seven of Idaho’s public health district answered emails from Boise State Public Radio requesting comment on their contact tracing programs:

  • Panhandle Health: “Right now we have two case investigators.”
  • North Central District: During the peak from November through January, the district employed 12 staff working on contact tracing. They now have seven staffers, but didn’t respond to a follow-up question about whether they want to hire more.
  • Southwest District Health: Five contact tracers are currently employed, down from 15 in January.
  • Central District Health: They have between 25-30 staff to contact, monitor and investigate cases of those infected with COVID-19 and the district is in the process of hiring more. It had 70 people in its program last winter, though some roles were part-time and not all were dedicated entirely to contact tracing.
  • South Central District Health: “At our peak in late November, we had 5 contact tracers and 15 disease investigators.” The district also had help from two members of the National Guard and four nursing students from College of Southern Idaho. Currently, it has four tracers and 12 investigators – some of whom are part-time.
  • Eastern Idaho Public Health: The district had 28 contact tracers in November and December of 2020. They currently have eight, but can reassign six other staffers immediately if necessary.
  • Southeastern Idaho Public Health: Six contact tracers currently work for the district with five new hires starting this week. It had 18 tracers at the peak.

Aside from the privacy debate, some health experts also have questioned the efficacy of large scale contact tracing programs for a virus that can spread as easily as the coronavirus. They argue resources could be better used to make testing widely available and accessible.

COVID-19 vaccines are also widely available, though the number of eligible Idahoans who are fully vaccinated lags behind the national average.

As of Sunday, 47% of Idahoans ages 12+ are fully vaccinated compared to 59.3% nationwide, though rates are slowly increasing.

When asked if more money should be dedicated to vaccination clinics and outreach compared to contact tracing, James Corbett, Community Health Division Director for Eastern Idaho Public Health, said it’s a balance.

“Certainly, if everyone wanted to be vaccinated, we’d put efforts into that, but again, you meet the demand for each of those instances,” Corbett said.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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