KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- You’ve probably heard a lot about contact tracing, which is where disease detectives track down and warn people who’ve been exposed to communicable diseases like sexually transmitted infections and now COVID-19.
On Thursday, KCTV5’s Investigative Reporter Angie Ricono looked at the importance of contact tracing and the challenges it poses.
The coronavirus has really exposed the lack of investment in public health. Right now, the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department is trying to manage both a syphilis outbreak and now coronavirus.
To do that, they need support and fast.
“We have to have additional staff to contact everyone and identify everyone to slow down the spread,” explained Tiffany Wilkinson, Division Manager of Communicable Diseases.
Contract tracers or disease detectives can help stop the spread of the coronavirus. They find out who else has been exposed and warn them.
However, there’s a huge challenge: “Public health infrastructure has been crumbling over the past 15 years,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve had drastic cuts in resources.”
The national recommendations call for 15 to 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people. That means there should ideally be 75 to 150 contact tracers for just KC, because we have 500,000 people.
We’re nowhere near that. Right now, we have just 19. The city’s immediate goal with emergency funding is to reach 31.
As for Johnson County, they have 33 contact tracers for 600,000 people
“We need to know who they’ve been in contact with longer than 10 minutes,” said Epidemiology Specialist Lisa Hubbert.
The work is done by phone. It’s a job that requires tremendous people skills. The truth is, people don’t always want to share personal information.
“People skills are the most important role,” Hubbert said. “Those are difficult to teach. We can teach the rest.”
With coronavirus, the person being called may have to admit they broke social distancing guidelines.
“You have to get their trust and get them to open up to you,” Hubbert said.
They do this with sick, tired people. Some are hospitalized.
People who need to be warned are obvious, like a person’s family members. Also, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. Anyone who was closer than 6 feet for more than 10 minutes.
“If we are going to make any dent over the nation or the disease, investigation is critical in order for us to identify for those exposed,” she said.
The work is careful, and they promise it’s confidential. People will be warned they’ve been exposed and what date, but they won’t be told the name of the infected person.
Kansas City’s Health Department, like a lot of health departments, is teaming up with medical and dental students to really expand the staff. They will be highly trained volunteers. They would love to hit 100 or that 150 number.
If you have the skills to be a contact tracer, the city’s website has more information.