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Buchanan County residents with COVID will have to trace their own contacts due to backlog, record-setting pace of new cases

With a surge in cases, St. Joseph Health Department is changing its COVID-19 contact tracing process and is asking for the public’s help calling contacts.

Posted: Nov 26, 2020 9:11 AM
Updated: Nov 26, 2020 9:20 AM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) Buchanan County residents caught in a COVID-19 contact tracing backlog will no longer have contacts outside of their households notified.

The county’s contact tracing system has grown increasingly overwhelmed as case counts rocket. St. Joseph Health Department staff say they no longer have the staff, resources, or time to contact trace every new case. As a result, they are scaling back the contact tracing process.

“Our health department staff have been working nonstop trying to do the absolute best that we can to keep up the cases are just outpacing our resources and it’s now coming to the time that we are saying to the community, we need your help with this. We need the community’s help with this response,” said St. Joseph Health Department Clinic Supervisor Connie Werner.

She said it’s no longer possible to call each positive case’s contacts when there are an average of 82 new positive individuals each day. The department’s latest report identified 5899 total COVID-19 cases in Buchanan County with 4491 confirmed cases and the other 1408 probable. Additionally, the county has lost a total of 77 residents to the virus.

“With the 14-day count of positive cases per 100,000 topping 1,300, the department is forced to make changes to the process contract tracers follow when a new case is identified,” according to a health department press release.

Starting Wednesday, the health department is shifting some of the contact investigations to people who received a positive result.

“It’s certainly not what we want to do. We want our cases to be so low that this is not a problem but that’s not where we are right now and we anticipate that it will get worse before it gets better,” Werner said.

This is in line with new national and state guidelines.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) have adapted guidance on contact tracing due to the nationwide surge in cases for which only cases and their household contacts are given direct instruction via communication with health department staff,” according to the release.

The health department will still collect COVID-19 information and create case files but the contact tracers will no longer call every contact listed. Instead, the positive individual will be responsible for notifying anyone outside of their household about potential exposures.

“The case will receive instruction on how to inform their close contacts of the exposure, the recommendation to quarantine for 14 days, and how to proceed if symptoms develop,” according to the release.

An individual who tests positive will now also be responsible for notifying their employer of their illness and if there are any potential coronavirus exposures in the workplace.

The surge in the health department’s caseload and the reordering of priorities will also impact how quickly the department can provide clearance letters to an employer, daycare, or landlord.

“The health department only distributes letters confirming quarantine for individuals with verification and the current process of providing clearance letters is not sustainable. Employers and others are being requested to explore alternatives for verification of illness or quarantine,” according to the release.

Werner said the department is asking for the community to step up its efforts to contain the spread of the virus by foregoing holiday get-togethers, wear a face covering, practice social distancing, wash your hands and now contact trace.

“I would ask a person that if they were to test positive right now and they look back to two days before how many people would they say that are honestly close contacts to them that might continue to spread this disease process and if they are not comfortable with the amount of people that might be. You might need to evaluate what choices they are making,” she said.

The City of St. Joseph Health Department has provided links to online resources and guidance here.

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