With COVID-19 surge in Oklahoma comes redoubled contact tracing efforts

Carmen Forman
Oklahoman
Call center workers sit their desks at the Oklahoma State Department of Health's former COVID-19 contact tracing center inside the old Shepherd Mall in 2020.

Oklahoma staffed up on contact tracers as COVID-19 cases swelled in recent months, but the number of contact tracers currently employed by the state pales in comparison to the number employed during earlier peak months of the pandemic.

After employing about 62 contact tracers and case investigators in late May, the Oklahoma Health Department employed about 150 contact tracers as of early September, a jump that coincided with the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant. 

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The number is less than half of the 372 contact tracers and investigators the agency employed in October when the state had a temporary contact tracing call center in Oklahoma City that was funded with federal coronavirus aid. 

The hub inside the old Shepherd Mall was shuttered late last year, and the State Health Department has since shifted to a decentralized approach to contact tracing. 

The agency says it constantly evaluates the state's COVID-19 situation to determine if the number of contact tracers is sufficient to handle case counts. 

"With an increased number of cases in recent weeks, we are considering all options to keep Oklahomans who have been exposed safe and informed, including the possibility of adjusting our number of contact tracers," a spokesman for the Health Department said in a statement. 

Case investigators for the department are able to successfully interview about 50% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in a given week, the spokesman said. For the week that ended Sept. 11, Oklahoma had 15,818 new COVID-19 cases.

Individuals contacted by the health department can choose whether to disclose who they came in contact with recently, but case investigators provide information about isolating and quarantining to everyone they reach. 

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During the pandemic, Oklahoma and other states have struggled to keep up with contact tracing due to the sheer number of COVID-19 cases. 

In March, a legislative watchdog office found that the Health Department's contact tracing efforts failed to keep pace with the spread of COVID-19 and did not add to the state's pandemic response. The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, which plans to issue a follow-up report on the state's contact tracing efforts, recommended increasing the number of contact tracers and disseminating more of that data to municipal leaders. 

At the time, Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said no public health institutions across the country were prepared to approach contact tracing the significant number of COVID-19 cases in a manageable way. He also suggested many Oklahomans are inherently skeptical of the contact tracing process.  

Contact tracing is designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 by identifying those who have contracted the virus, following the disease spread through their close contacts and urging all of those people to avoid interactions with others while they might be contagious. 

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The Oklahoma City-County Health Department is relying on volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps to help with a backlog of contact tracing. With about 47 volunteers, the local health department has, on average, between five and 10 Medical Reserve Corps. members working contact tracing shifts each day, said spokeswoman Molly Fleming.

Before the variant began its rapid spread, the department was primarily focused on getting Oklahomans vaccinated. With limited staff and resources, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing fell to the wayside, she said. 

"Because this (surge) took off so quickly, we weren't really contact tracing," Fleming said. "We weren't set up to do this, and so we had to bring a lot of people back."

That's where the Medical Reserve Corps has been a huge help, she said. 

Representatives for the local and state health departments said they aren't able to contact trace for people who take at-home COVID-19 tests because those results are not reported to the city-county health department or the state. At-home tests kits have become more popular as they have gotten cheaper and become easier to find online and in local stores. 

State health officials say they are "cautiously optimistic" about a downward trend in new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks after spikes in July and August that have stretched Oklahoma hospitals to their limits.