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Contact tracing plan includes filling 400 positions in Clark County

Updated July 21, 2020 - 5:50 pm

Health officials announced plans to train and add more than 400 new positions to handle contact tracing of local COVID-19 patients as they battle rising case numbers in Clark County and an ever-increasing statewide infection rate.

“We know that the sooner that we find out that you have COVID-19, the sooner that we can get you into precautionary matters or in the hospital,” Clark County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said during a Tuesday news conference. Kirkpatrick also serves as vice chair of the Southern Nevada Health District’s Board of Health.

A surge of COVID-19 cases reported last week overwhelmed the Southern Nevada Health District’s 64 public health investigators, who did not have enough manpower or hours in the day to locate, contact and interview every single person who tested positive.

Contact tracing involves identifying people who have tested positive for the coronavirus as well as their close contacts, then notifying and monitoring others who may have been exposed to the virus through them.

The health district and county are working to train and deploy 100 case investigators through UNLV and 100 through a contract with a Henderson call center that was announced Monday, according to Dr. Michael Johnson, director of the health district’s community health division.

Johnson said the district would also add more than 200 contact tracers, the first ones to call when a positive case is identified. Clark County’s Department of Family services dedicated 25 staff members to assist with tracing, and 180 more will be added through a state grant and contract.

The health district has an automated system that immediately notifies people whose tests return positive, provides resources and prompts them to identify anyone with whom they’ve been in close contact, Johnson said.

Contract tracers use that information to notify people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, but the identity of the person who tested positive is kept confidential during the notification process, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, to protect their private medical information.

In the past two months, the automated system has sent more than 17,000 notifications that resulted in nearly 35,000 close contacts identified, Johnson said. However, personal phone calls are much more effective when it comes to gathering contact information, he said, as well as providing help.

After contact tracers collect necessary information, case investigators follow up to monitor progress of the illness and ensure that the person who tested positive gets the resources they need.

“It’s been instrumental to have social service help with these contact tracing calls, so we can actually identify (obstacles),” Kirkpatrick said. “If you’re concerned about how those bills get paid, we will wrap resources around you to ensure that you can stay at home and be comfortable.”

Johnson said that, most importantly, tracers and investigators are trained to talk to people — lending a sympathetic ear, easing anxieties and navigating difficult conversations.

“In some cases we’ve had case investigators call positive COVID patients to inform them, and we’ve discovered they have a loved one they’ve lost to COVID,” Johnson said. “There are going to be a lot of these kinds of issues that come up, so it’s important to have both the technical and people skills, and we ensure that they do.”

Sufficient staffing and bed space are the most critical worst-case concerns for the county’s emergency managers, making it doubly important to lessen the spread so necessary personnel stay healthy and on-hand, Clark County Fire Chief John Steinbeck said.

“We really want to look at every single case as if it was a 9-1-1 response, even if it’s a mild symptom, even if it’s asymptomatic,” he said. “We’re looking every case in that fashion so we can box this up and keep it from spreading to the next person.”

Data released Tuesday by the health district puts the county’s total number of cases at 32,025.

Statewide, officials reported 28 deaths attributed to COVID-19 on Tuesday, the largest single-day increase yet. All but two of those deaths were reported in Clark County.

The state’s infection rate continues to climb and as of Tuesday is calculated at 9.47 percent. Experts consider the rate — the number of cases divided by the number of people who have been tested — a better indicator of the outbreaks trend in Nevada than new cases.

Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

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