KSL Investigates: Overwhelmed Contact Tracers Relying On Patients To Self-Trace

Nov 12, 2020, 11:39 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 9:57 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties are seeing the biggest numbers of COVID-19 cases.

The KSL Investigators reached out to see how this surge of cases is impacting their efforts to track the pandemic. In all three counties, we learned the number is overwhelming contact tracing efforts.

In Salt Lake County, every single health department employee has contact tracing duties on at least a part-time basis. Nicholas Rupp with the Salt Lake County Health Department said this work is done in addition to other work duties, like restaurant inspections.

In addition, Salt Lake has 150 full-time contact tracers. Early in the pandemic, they were able to reach out to all possible contacts of each positive patient to notify of possible exposure. But as cases grew, that breadth of tracing became impossible to maintain.

Some counties are notifying employers of a positive patient, but most don’t have time.

Now, contact tracers are limiting their tracing efforts to the immediate household members of someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

All three counties told KSL most of their patients receive their results and a call from a contact tracer within 24-48 hours.

Aislynn Tolman-Hill, public information officer for Utah County Health Department, said that goal is not always attainable.

“It’s, one, a struggle just to get those cases assigned out to our contact tracers. Two, it’s hard for those contact tracers to try to make contact with those individuals,” she said.

To speed up the process, Tolman-Hill said the county is looking into a digital way to notify someone they have COVID-19.

“The number of cases that we have, it absolutely would be helpful,” she said. “Without a doubt.”

What About Healthy Together?

The state of Utah already has an app that was initially designed to help with contact tracing and notifying folks of their COVID-19 test results: the Healthy Together app. Utah continues to pay $300,000 per month for this technology.

However, the GPS tracing was disabled, and now mostly serves as a way for users to check their symptoms and get additional information about what to do if they get COVID.

We asked Tom Hudachko, public information officer for the Utah Department of Health, if Healthy Together could be adapted to be more broadly useful in contact tracing efforts. Hudachko said, “we see Healthy Together continuing to play the role that it’s playing right now.”

Hudachko said UDOH put out a request for proposal for Bluetooth technology to interface with the Healthy Together app, but the state’s budget would not allow for this expansion.

Instead, the state canceled the request and are exploring the free technology available through a partnership with Apple and Google.

New App: Notification Express

The Notification Express tool allows your phone to “talk” to other phones enabled with the Bluetooth feature. It tracks the user’s interactions with other phones for 14 days. When someone encounters another who is COVID-positive or tests positive later for COVID, it sends an alert of exposure.

Another feature allows the user to self-report a COVID diagnosis, which will then alert the other users with whom that person has been near that they have been exposed.

“No data is ever transferred to Apple or to Google or to the state for that matter,” said Hudachko. “Your phone, all the information, all the data and all the location information reside on it.”

A similar app was launched in Colorado just a few weeks ago, and so far, more than 800,000 people have signed up. It’s currently used in 15 other states.

The app is not yet available in Utah. Hudachko told us there is no timeline on when it will be ready.

iPhones already have this feature on their phones, and Android users will have to download an app when it is available. This tech launched on May 20.

Importance Of Self-Tracing

While COVID-19 cases remain high, Hudachko said contact tracing is largely up to the person who tests positive. Those calls can be uncomfortable for some to make, but he said it’s vital that others know if they have been exposed.

“The only way that we’re going to get ahead of the curve is by getting to people who have been exposed and asking them to quarantine, asking them to watch for symptoms, and to get tested themselves,” he said.

Tolman-Hill echoed that Utah is at a critical point for all citizens to work together to slow the spread.

“It truly is about all of us working together,” she said. “Like it or not, it really is.”

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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KSL Investigates: Overwhelmed Contact Tracers Relying On Patients To Self-Trace