Contact tracing plummets as coronavirus evolves and vaccinations increase
States across the country are reducing their contact tracing efforts, often focusing on vulnerable communities and relying more on Americans to alert close contacts themselves after testing positive for COVID.
Why is this important: As vaccines became available, the virus became more infectious, and life slowly moved back to normal, health officials came to view contact tracing as a relatively ineffective use of resources.
State of play: The Virginia Department of Health announced this week that it will no longer attempt to trace contacts of every new COVID case and will instead focus on high-risk settings.
- The Omicron variant drove the change. “We can’t trace and isolate that many cases, we don’t have enough staff for that. It’s just too crowded for this Omicron push,” said Breanne Forbes Hubbard of Mount Rogers Health District. at WCYB.
- The availability of home COVID tests also means that public health agencies are not notified of many positive cases.
The big picture: Well over a dozen states — including Nebraska, Wyoming and Massachusetts — have already taken steps to recall contact tracing and asked the public to do more themselves, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, which follows the trend.
- Local health departments and school districts in these states can still implement more robust programs, and there is also a wide variety of approaches across states.
- “Contact tracing is a tool that we know works for communicable diseases, but, for example with Omicron – which is incredibly contagious – it’s difficult to track it in a way that’s helpful,” Elinor said. NASHP’s Higgins.
What they say : Several groups representing public health officials issued a statement this week in support of the health department’s decision to shift from investigating each case to “a more strategic approach to outbreak investigations and investigation of targeted cases”.
- “Only a very small portion of the total number of cases and close contacts are reached by public health contact tracers in time to prevent transmission,” the groups wrote.
Between the lines: American behavior has also changed. For many people and businesses, contact tracing has become part of everyday culture.
- It is completely normal to receive an SMS from a recent contact saying that they have tested positive for the virus. And unlike pre-vaccines, it’s not a signal to vaccinated people that they should quarantine themselves, or even necessarily get tested unless they develop symptoms.
- Contact tracing or exposure notification has also become more automated through technology, further reducing the need for so many human contact tracers.
The bottom line: Contact tracing was initially hailed as the key to slowing the spread of COVID. But as the virus evolves, this is another example of how we will need to continue to evolve with it.