ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska’s coronavirus contact tracing effort is rebounding after several months of hiring and several weeks of decreased daily cases, officials said.
State officials said great improvements have been made since November, when the contact tracing corps was overwhelmed and people testing positive were asked to reach out on their own to those they may have infected, Anchorage Daily News reported Monday.
Tim Struna, chief of Public Health Nursing for the Alaska Division of Public Health, said contact tracers can now investigate reports within a day after receiving notice of new virus infections.
“It’s a profound change,” Struna said.
Contact tracers call people infected with COVID-19 to learn who was close to them and then call those contacts. Public health experts have said the process is a crucial part of controlling the spread of the virus before vaccines become widely available.
During the state’s infection surge in the fall, a week or more could pass before people with positive results heard from a contact tracer, if at all, officials said.
“In my mind it sort of shifted towards damage control,” Anchorage public health nurse and contact tracer Jordan Loewe said.
The reinvigorated workforce includes a variety of organizations and groups. Nearly half of new contact tracers were placed through a partnership with the University of Alaska Anchorage, Struna said.
The university’s group grew from 60 people in September to 250 this week, project manager Annie Thomas said.
The group working remotely includes former doctors, retirees, nurses, first responders, teachers, librarians and workers affected by closures in other sectors, she said.
“It’s a fun, kind of ragtag group that really almost makes up the face of Alaska,” Thomas said.
Sarah Hargrave, Alaska’s Southeast regional public health nurse manager, said the remaining contact tracers include contracted workers, National Guard members, school nurses and state and municipal health department employees.
There are now about 500 contact tracers, Hargrave said.
That makes a difference because contact tracing helps break a “chain of infection,” while delays in reaching out to a potentially contagious person is a major impediment to stemming additional virus spread, Hargrave said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.