Contact tracing finds cases quickly

Gov. Mark Gordon is calling in the troops.

At a press conference Monday, the governor said he was deploying the Wyoming National Guard for 30 days to help the Wyoming Department of Health with contact tracing. Eight out of the last 10 days in September featured 90 or more new cases of COVID-19 across the state.

That puts a lot of pressure on contact tracers, who in a perfect world follow up with all the contacts an infected person had in the two weeks before diagnosis.

“The Wyoming Department of Health has been severely strained,” Gordon said Monday.

Contact tracing is seen as an integral part of containing the coronavirus outbreak. After the investigations identify people who may have been infected via spending time around a sick person, those people are told to quarantine for 14 days following their last exposure.

Without contact tracing, those people would go about their lives until they started to feel symptomatic, at which point they might be tested. That increases the likelihood that they would have infected others with the virus, which has killed roughly 210,000 Americans.

Like many parts of the coronavirus response, contact tracing capacity varies by county. The Teton County Health Department has invested heavily in a team of investigators, using federal relief money to hire new people.

“We’re offering tests to anyone considered to be a close contact,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said. “That’s how we’ve been able to really keep it in check.”

Active cases in Teton County have dropped from the record level reached in recent days, lowering the immediate burden on local contact tracers, but Pond said her staff was stretched to its limit during the spike. That’s true around the state, which is why Gordon has called on the National Guard.

Not all counties have ramped up contact tracing the way Teton County has, so the state has stepped in to help. Of Wyoming’s 23 counties, 15 are leading their own efforts, and the state is running the investigations in eight.

One recent change that could make things easier for contact tracers is an easing of the quarantine guidelines for close contacts in schools. No longer do close contacts of coronavirus-positive people in schools need to quarantine if both parties were wearing masks at the time of exposure.

That limits the number of quarantine orders contact tracers need to give out, but state Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said the decision wasn’t made due to stress on contact tracers.

“This change was based on evidence that we have not been seeing widespread transmission in school settings where masks are used as required,” she wrote in an email Monday.

So far, there are no plans, she said, to ease the guidance for other close contacts, since mask use is far more spotty in other areas of life. Schools are one of the few places masks are mandated statewide.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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