As case counts increase, so does the difficulty of contact tracing

Health officials say contact tracing is one of the key tools to controlling the spread of COVID-19.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY N.C. (WECT) - Every time a positive test result comes through the New Hanover County Department of Health and Human Services, a public health nurse makes a call.

That first call is to the patient who tested positive, to not only let them know of their test result if they don’t already know, but to find out who they may have been around for the days leading up to their test.

“Contact tracing is exactly what the phrase is―we are tracing the contacts of positive cases,” said Carla Turner, assistant health director for New Hanover County.

A close contact is anyone the patient lives with, or was within six feet of for at least 10 minutes, and public health tries to reach each one the positive patient identifies.

Depending on how isolated the person has been, that could mean anywhere from one or two calls to a couple dozen.

With New Hanover County seeing an average of 45 new cases per day, that’s a lot of calls.

“So that just puts that effort, that heavy lift on the public health staff who are having to call all these closed contacts and let them know that there’s a potential that they’ve been exposed,” Turner said.

Another issue, she said, is people not answering these calls because they are coming from an unknown number.

”It has been a challenge, and I’m the same. Before three months ago, if I didn’t recognize a number on my phone, I did not answer it. We’re just asking people to please, even if you don’t recognize the number, please answer it in case it is somebody from public health trying to get in touch with you,” she said.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has seen similar difficulties, with Dr. Mandy Cohen saying Tuesday state contact tracers are only able to successfully reach one third to one half of those they call.

Turner said if a person does not pick up, they can leave a voicemail if an inbox is set up, but they will only leave a message asking the person to call them back, as they don’t want to disclose this kind of news in a recorded message.

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