Duke contact tracers identify COVID-19 points of infection, find asymptomatic students

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Over a two month span, about a quarter of COVID-19 cases on Duke University’s campus were found through contact tracing.

“Without a vaccine right now, contract tracing is one of the really big ways we can prevent spread,” said Laura Andrews associate dean of students.

Contact tracers at Duke were also able to link some of their cases to campus dining halls. In response, they’ve now chained down chairs to keep students distanced and have people walking around reminding diners to put their masks back on after eating.

Source: Duke University

“Our surveillance testing, our social media campaigns, behaviors of our students, all those things have been combining together to help keep our cases low,” said Andrews.

The 150 trained contact tracers at Duke work solely with the school. They are recent retirees, volunteers and reassigned employees. Their familiarity with the campus helping build trust with students to be forthcoming about their recent whereabouts and activities.

“Our desire to know that information and to know that accurate information is more important than punishing a student around that and then perhaps not getting that information,” said Andrews.

It’s a different story at the state level.

A study from the CDC shows between a third and half of patients in North Carolina COVID-19 positive patients claimed they had no contacts to be traced. Of those who did, a quarter to half could not be reached by contact tracers.

Contract tracing hurdles

A study from the CDC took at look at contact tracing in Randolph and Mecklenburg Counties. It concluded 35 percent of patients in Randolph County and 48 percent of patients in Mecklenburg County claimed they had no contacts to trace. The CDC said that may be partly out of fear of putting those people out of work due to quarantine.

Of those who did report contacts, 25 percent in Mecklenburg and 48 percent in Randolph could not be reached and were classified as nonresponsive.

The CDC said, “Improved timeliness of contact tracing, community engagement, and community-wide mitigation are needed to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”

Comparing contact tracers nationally

The state website currently lists 1,500 contact tracers. In June, that number was 1,800.

CBS 17 asked NCDHHS if they had enough contact tracers given the rise in new daily cases and increased interaction with Phase 2 reopening.

In a statement, they said:

“Yes, to meet the scale needed to respond to COVID-19 we work with local health departments (LHDs) and the surge staffing agency to flex staff as needed. Currently, there are more than 2,000 staff supporting contact tracing efforts across the state.

We have developed a process to work with certain LHDs to partner with external organizations to perform contact tracing in specific populations, such as military bases and institutions of higher education. We remain responsive and flexible so as to meet the needs of our LHDs. In addition to practicing our tried and true preventative measures like wearing a face covering, social distancing and washing our hands, contact tracing is a proven, effective way to help slow the spread of COVID-19. NCDHHS also recently launched the exposure notification app, SlowCOVIDNC,  ​which allows individuals to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in their communities by notifying close contacts of their exposure through the app.”

Developed by George Washington University, the Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator is an online to tool meant to help state leaders determine their need for contact tracers.

It’s data shows the state needs 8,646 contact tracers, or 83 per 100,00 residents.

It’s among the highest in the country. Wisconsin topped the list with an estimated need of 239 contact tracers per 100,000 people.

The calculator estimates the needs are highest in the following state:

  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Wisconsin
  • Florida
  • California

Explore the Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator yourself below.

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