More than 1,000 positive cases have been reported in the South Central Public Health District during most weeks in the past month, but case investigators have only been able to reach about 300 of them.
“Every week we fall further behind,” said Brianna Bodily, the public information officer at the health district based in Twin Falls.
In press releases sent on Friday and Monday, five of Idaho's seven health districs (South Central, Central, Southwest, Panhandle and North Central) said a recent surge of COVID-19 cases means it’s impossible for them to contact everyone who tests positive, let alone an individual’s close contacts.
Due to a backlog in the Panhandle Health District, case investigators don't always get around to uploading the case data of all the lab results they receive in a day.
“We are able to report over 100 cases per day, but that is only what we are able to get into data entry,” said Katherine Hoyer, the public information officer at Panhandle Health District. “Some days there may be double that amount of cases and our staff is struggling to keep our heads above water.”
That lag in data entry means the health district is not always able to report the true number of cases in a day to the public or the state.
As a result, health districts are relying on people to act responsibly on their own by quarantining while they wait for test results and taking the initiative to warn close contacts that they too might have been exposed and need to quarantine as well.
Some health districts are prioritizing calls by age to ensure they are reaching people who are most at risk for severe symptoms or who might be likely to spread the virus to others.
At the South Central Public Health District, four to five employees are making calls and working as case investigators full-time. The district is trying to rapidly hire more people, but it would need to approximately triple its case investigation workforce to keep up with new cases.
Some relief might be on the way through a new partnership with the College of Southern Idaho’s nursing program. Nursing students will reach out to people who test positive for COVID-19 from an on-campus computer lab, working as volunteers or for credit.
The students have to be specially trained to handle the sensitive case information.
“They’re going to be essential in our efforts to close the gap we’re seeing right now because of a surge in cases,” Bodily said.
The nursing program requires completion of clinical hours, which are usually fulfilled at local medical facilities. Some of those opportunities for students are on pause during the pandemic, so helping the health district is now an option for them.
Melisa Robinson, a nursing instructor, said working with the health district is a good way for the students to learn more about community health.
“Nursing isn’t just related to the hospital,” she said, “it actually encompasses a whole lot more.”
Christian Ervin, a first-year nursing student at CSI, worked an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift for the first time last week.
“Between six to eight people that were in there we were able to make several hundred calls,” he said.
Ervin, a paramedic in Blaine County, has been well-acquainted with various aspects of the local pandemic response, but he says this process has allowed him to better understand how the virus spreads through the community.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information from the Panhandle Health District and the North Central Health District.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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