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Idaho health departments offer self-reporting COVID-19 tools to help contact tracing efforts

Contact tracing involves a painstaking process of identifying and reaching out to all of a COVID-19 patient's recent contacts. In Ireland, Irish Army cadets assist with the contact tracing work in Dublin.
Paul Faith
AFP via Getty Images
Contact tracing involves a painstaking process of identifying and reaching out to all of a COVID-19 patient's recent contacts. In Ireland, Irish Army cadets assist with the contact tracing work in Dublin.

The surge of new coronavirus cases has left local health departments struggling to keep up with contact tracing. In September, all three health districts in southwest and south central Idaho asked the public to self-report infections and possible close contacts.

“We're overwhelmed just kind of as the hospitals are, and we're really in this together trying to help one another out and the public can really help us out,” said Lindsay Haskell, Communicable Disease Control Program Manager at Central District Health.

When someone gets a contagious illness like COVID-19, ideally, they’d get a call from a contact tracer at the local health department. Haskell said CDH has about half the staff it did for contract tracing during the previous COVID-19 surge in late 2020.

“We're only reaching, maybe one-tenth of the cases we're receiving a day,” she said. “Some days it might be closer to one-fifth.”

A processing backlog means the state’s largest health department isn’t even receiving the full number of new case reports each day. Central District Spokeswoman Alina Gilmore wrote that, as of October 6, the district had around 3,000 labs waiting to be processed, some in the queue for as many as 10 days. Generally, the district is processing about 600 each day.

The crunch has forced Central District Health to prioritize contract tracing for high-risk groups; schools with vulnerable populations, congregate living facilities like homeless shelters and correctional facilities, long-term care residents and people unable to receive the vaccine.

That means a lot of helpful data on where the general public might be catching the virus is delayed or not recorded at all. It also means there’s no way to know for sure what the impact of large events like Treefort or Boise State Football games are on the spread of the virus.

“We can't say things aren't related to a certain event or certain transmission because we don't have that full picture,” Haskell said.

Southwest District Health officials have had good success getting information from residents via text message, a spokeswoman wrote, freeing up staff to make phone calls to high-risk individuals. Tracing data in that district show most people diagnosed with COVID-19 are infected by people they live with, at work or at social gatherings — but there were no reports in those counties of infection from Boise State football attendees.

Self-reporting came online in September. In Central District Health’s four counties, school nurses have done a good job using the school exposure forms, Haskell said, but just a handful of the general public has used the online reporting form.

Health officials say when the public uses those online tools it saves them time and improves the data. Self-reporting directly to close contacts, if someone gets infected, is faster than what the health department can do and is more likely to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by giving those possible close contacts the chance to quarantine.

Online COVID reporting, contact tracing and other tools for those who become infected with COVID-19 are available in the central, southwest and south-central health districts.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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