HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — While Hillsborough County’s positive test rates for coronavirus continue to soar, health officials say their ability to trace the coronavirus has declined, placing the county at a major disadvantage in combating the spread of the virus.
That was the word from Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, speaking to members of the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group Thursday.
Joined by Dr. Marissa Levine of the University of South Florida College of Public Health, Holt told EPG members that contract tracing provides crucial information in identifying community patterns and hot spots, and the county just isn’t getting the cooperation it needs from residents.
According to an updated model by PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Florida has the potential to be the next epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with Tampa Bay specifically called out.
“We are the epicenter for the Southeast. There’s no question about that,” Dr. Jay Wolfson with the University of South Florida Public Health said.
However, efforts to contain the virus are being hampered by an unwillingness of people to participate in contact tracing efforts, said Holt.
It is voluntary for those who may have been exposed to or test positive for coronavirus to participate in contact tracing surveys in which health officials attempt to trace who transmitted the virus to a person and who that person might have transmitted the virus to before receiving a positive diagnosis and going into isolation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contact tracing is the best tool health officials have to locate people who have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Both Holt and Levine underscored that the lack of willing participants has hindered efforts to halt the virus’ spread.
“Contact tracing is a public health containment tool used in these outbreaks,” Holt said. “It’s one of the weapons in our armory to prevent people from becoming infected. It helps us identify someone quickly at the beginning of the infection, so they can be contained and not spread the virus further.”
After obtaining the name of a person who may have been exposed, the contact tracer contacts the person and suggests he or she be tested.
If the person tests negative, he or she is asked to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days. If they test positive, they are placed in isolation and monitored by county case investigators.
Among the information collected from those who test positive for the coronavirus are names, birth dates, phone numbers, addresses as well as the names of those they’ve been in contact with, including any large gatherings they may have attended.
“Ideally, we want to catch that person 48 to 72 hours from the onset of the infection,” Holt said. “But in the last month or so, about 20 percent of the calls we make, we do not receive a call back. Of the remaining 80 percent, about half of them decline to speak with us.”
“To be effective in dealing with this pandemic we need to get back down to 14 to 15 cases a day, and that hasn’t been the case since April 28,” said Levine. Currently, the county is seeing 650 to 700 new cases a day.
She said contact tracing allows health officials to find infected people quickly and halt the spread of the coronavirus.
“There’s no magic panacea,” she said. “We need all the tools at our disposal.”
Levine said The Harvard Report recommends having 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people. With that in mind, Hillsborough County should ideally have more than 400 contact tracers on staff. The county currently has only 35 contact tracers and 48 case investigators on staff.
With some help from the state and federal coronavirus emergency funding, Holt said his department hopes to increase the number of investigators and tracers to 239 by the beginning of August.
Holt said one fear is that the county will invade the infected person’s privacy.
“It’s not the health department’s intent to invade anyone’s privacy,” he said. “Unless you give permission, your name will not be revealed to those you came in contact with, even if they ask. We speak with someone who’s infected and, if they tell us the name of someone they believe they infected, we reach out and inform that person and advise them to get tested. We make sure they understand that they could be infected and spread it, and we ask them to voluntarily quarantine.”
“Right now, what’s really important is we continue getting the message out there that testing and contact tracing play a vital role in fighting this pandemic,” said Levine.
Those who are unable to safely isolate at home may be eligible to stay in a hotel rented by Hillsborough County until fully recovered. The county is currently renting two hotels – one for residents in quarantine and another for residents who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and must be isolated.
Contact tracers offer those who have had contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus two options for keeping in touch with health officials. About 60 percent prefer to register and provide information online while the rest opt for a personal phone call, Holt said.
Those exposed are asked to quarantine for 14 days, starting from the most recent day that the person was possibly exposed to the coronavirus.
The Department of Health provided the following tips on ways residents can help with the contact tracing process:
Pick up the phone when your health department calls.
Follow health department guidance.
Notify your healthcare provider if you become ill.
Call your healthcare provider if you start to feel ill and you have not been tested for the coronavirus.
If you have been in close contact with someone with the coronavirus, you should stay at home and self-quarantine for 14 days, starting from the most recent day that you were possibly exposed.
Monitor yourself, and maintain social distancing (at least 6 feet) from others at all times.
Notify those who you had close contact with recently if you become ill.
Know what symptoms mean you need to go to the hospital right away.
Seek medical care if symptoms become severe. Severe symptoms include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face.
For more information, click here.
See related story: Here’s What Do To If A Contact Tracer Calls
This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch