Connecticut is bolstering contact tracing efforts at the state and local levels in an effort to limit the recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases, particularly across the southeastern portion of the state.
The state Department of Health has contracted with the San Diego-based firm AMN Healthcare to provide the state with a local workforce trained in contact tracing methods.
Contact tracing is a process of identifying and reaching out to close contacts of someone diagnosed with a communicable disease. The tracers inform contacts about quarantine requirements, review a list of symptoms and connect individuals with any services they might need.
According to the contract, the state will pay the firm close to $24 million — $1,900 for each person hired, up to 350 people, and $1600 for each additional hire. The state will also pay the company $526,000 in monthly administrative fees.
Along with adding to the number of contact tracers working with the Department of Public Health, the Governor’s Office today released funding to support the local tracing efforts of 21 regional health districts in the state. That funding is part of $20 million given to the state of Connecticut through the CDC Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity Cooperative Agreement.
Ledge Light Health District, which includes New London and 10 other towns in the southeast region of Connecticut, will be receiving $861,707 through the grant. UNCAS Health District, Ledge Light’s neighbor to the north, will receive $559,611. The grant is to be distributed over three years.
Steve Mansfield, director of Ledge Light Health District, said that the contact tracing in the area has “increased dramatically” in the last few weeks.
The most recent data from Ledge Light shows a large spike in cases since September 26th. Last week, the district reported 215 new cases, driven largely by New London and Groton.
Mansfield said that most of the contact tracing resources in the Ledge Light district have been focused on staff and students at the schools, although this isn’t necessarily where the majority of cases occur.
Mansfield said that Ledge Light wasn’t currently experiencing a shortage of contact tracers. The district has two public health nurses performing contact tracing and around seven medical reserve corps volunteers. He said that Ledge Light was in the process of hiring two full-time contact tracers as well as a logistics coordinator using the money from the grant.
Mansfield and Patrick McCormick, the director of UNCAS health district, both said that they have been assigning some cases to contact tracers working through the Department of Public Health, when there have been too many cases for the districts to handle or when a case requires a skill specialization, like a translator for a particular language.
McCormick said that the funding from the grant had allowed the district to hire two full-time nurses and a part-time nurse to help with contact tracing. He said that the nursing staff assigned to the effort make between $30 and $40 per hour.
McCormick said that while he has relied on the state for support, he would prefer to turn to local resources first, given their familiarity with the area and their ability to ask more pointed questions.
Both McCormick and Mansfield agreed that adding to the number of contact tracers at the state level as well as the local is a good thing.
“The more contact tracers we have, the better,” said Mansfield.
“We need to have the resources available for when we have a surge,” agreed McCormick.
UNCAS Health District reported an increase of 216 cases last week — 130 from Norwich. The district includes five of the 11 towns that the Governor recently designated “red alert” areas.
McCormick said that the recent increase in cases has resulted in more work for the contact tracers, and that the work has become more difficult since the public has begun to travel more, coming in contact with more people.
Michael Passero, Mayor of New London, agreed.
“As the community spread has picked up, the contact tracing has been quite an overwhelming task,” said Passero.
Passero said that the funding for the local health districts was “fantastic,” and that increasing the number of contact tracers at the Department of Health might lift some of the burden off the local tracers.
Peter Nystrom, Mayor of Norwich, said that he was also glad that the state was putting more funding behind contact tracing.
“Providing extra resources is critical for us,” said Nystrom. “There is a downward trend in Norwich, but it’s still high.”
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said it was also critical to make sure that people are able to feel at ease talking to contact tracers, and that they feel secure that their personal information will not be shared.
Mayors Passero and Nystrom said that the majority of the cases reported in their towns have not come from schools, universities or hospitals, but from small community gatherings where people let their guard down— sports events where parents gather to cheer on their kids, or within families with children.
They are encouraging people to consider limiting gatherings even during the holidays. Nystrom referred to himself as “the Grinch of Halloween,” after asking Norwich to cancel all its public events for the holiday.
Passero encouraged people to keep masks on at work and not congregate near the watercooler. “The good news is that we can protect ourselves,” he said. “You can’t trust anybody that they aren’t carrying the virus.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect figures included in the state’s contract with AMN Healthcare.