Being able to test everyone who needs it and alert contacts of positive coronavirus cases that they might've been exposed is key, as states begin to open up and people move around more, health officials say.
“A big event and a big run in an area where we don’t have adequate testing, that’s what I worry about," Gov. Brad Little said during a press conference two weeks ago when asked what keeps him up at night.
Little formed a testing task force three weeks ago to increase testing, especially in rural areas and for vulernable populations. The task force's strategy for how to do this is still in progress.
Dave Jeppesen, the director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said Idaho's testing capacity has greatly improved in the past few weeks. That's mostly due to in-state laboratories securing supplies they need to administer tests and the state's largest health system, St. Luke's, being able to run tests in, and get results from, its own laboratory.
And through this week, testing has been uneven across the state. As few as five tests have been conducted for every 1,000 people in Southeastern Idaho Public Health District since testing began in the state, whereas Central District Health, which includes Ada County, administered roughly 27 tests for every 1,000 people living in that area.
Contact tracing is the other public health strategy health officials say is crucial to preventing further outbreaks.
“Once we know somebody tests positive, then it’s about who else have they been in contact with, so we can get very targeted about who we need to isolate,” Jeppesen said during the AARP town hall this week.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials recommends states have 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people. That would mean 536 tracers in Idaho. Jeppesen said Idaho will have trained about half that many people to do contact tracing by the end of next week.
Throughout the pandemic, the seven local health districts have been in charge of making sure they have enough contact tracers. But $7 million in funding from the CARES Act will help them hire more people, Jeppesen said.
Two weeks ago, Boise State Public Radio asked local health districts about how many contact tracers they had and how many they planned to hire. Only the Central Health District indicated it was immediately hiring more people — up to 17 — to do tracing and case investigations. Most other health districts said they would train more people or move other employees into contact tracting roles, as needed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, according to Jeppesen, there were 23 people in Idaho making calls to people who tested positive, asking about where they'd been in the days before they got sick and with whom they interacted.
By now, local health districts have trained 117 people to do contact tracing and as many as 255 people will be trained by next week. That includes employees in other departments at local health districts and volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio
Member support is what makes local COVID-19 reporting possible. Support this coverage here.