Tennessee's contact tracing effort overwhelmed with latest surge of COVID-19 cases

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Posted at 5:29 PM, Dec 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-15 20:10:28-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In theory, when someone tests positive for COVID-19, anyone that's been around that person should get a call from their county health department.

But not when thousands are testing positive for COVID-19 every day.

"Our public health infrastructure is really bending under the weight of this pandemic," said Dr. David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University.

Tennessee's Department of Health has already dialed back their contact tracing effort. Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, tells NewsChannel 5 they are prioritizing recent COVID-19 cases that involve exposure at high density living and work spaces.

"Since there may be people who don’t get a call directly from the health department, we continue to ask everyone with a positive test to isolate for ten days and to notify any close contacts immediately that they should quarantine," said Christian.

As for the Metropolitan Public Health Department in Nashville, they believe their 125 contact tracers are enough for now, but that may not be sustainable.

"Right now we’re able to handle what we need to handle," said Brian Todd, a spokesperson for Metro Public Health. "We recognized we needed to continue to look for ways to keep up, or speed up the process."

To help cut down on the number of phone calls they have to make, Metro Public Health is testing a system where they can text you your results, but it only works if you actually respond.

"It’s used when the staff is stretched thin and isn’t able to reach out within about 48 hours. What that does it allows them to do is make that initial contact," said Todd.

Dr. Aronoff says because contact tracing is so critical, people who test positive for COVID-19 may have to do it themselves.

"It’s a bit of a five-alarm fire, so the fire brigade may be getting a little bit overwhelmed so we’re asking the general public to pick up a bucket and help put out the blaze," he said.

Aronoff added that the rest of us can also do our part to douse the flames.

"Social distancing, wearing our masks when we’re out in public and we can’t social distance, taking this holiday break to give the gift of disease prevention as opposed to anything else," said Dr. Aronoff.