State health leaders say contact tracing is not working for Louisiana

People are not participating to make the contact tracing effective.
Contact tracers keep busy with the recent COVID-19 uptick.
Contact tracers keep busy with the recent COVID-19 uptick.(WWNY)
Updated: Aug. 5, 2020 at 8:29 PM CDT
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(KSLA) - Louisiana’s health leaders are saying contact tracing is not as effective in the state as they planned it to be.

Dr. Alexander Billioux, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Office of Public Health, said the state has enough contact tracers, but now it’s facing another issue: participation.

“For those we can reach, 70% or more tell us they don’t have contacts that qualify,” Dr. Billioux said. “We’re not getting a lot of contacts from people, but that may be that you forget. When you see 70%, you worry people aren’t really participating.”

Contact tracing “involves identifying people who have an infectious disease (cases) and their contacts (people who may have been exposed) and working with them to interrupt disease transmission,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Contact tracers reach out and interview people who have been in close contact with an infected person.

“What we’re learning about contact tracing is, it’s success is contingent on a bunch of factors,” Dr. Billioux said.

Dr. Martha Whyte, health director for the Northwest Louisiana region, said contact tracing is not new.

“Contact tracing is a very large and well-known way to stop the spread of infectious diseases,” she said. “It’s something public health officials have done for a long, long time, and it works.”

Louisiana Department of Health spokeswoman, Aly Neel, said the state has 798 agents on-staff as contact tracers, with 640 people actively making calls.

“But when you have days with thousands of positive tests, it’s hard for us to get with people in a timely fashion,” Dr. Billioux said.

However, Neel said she thinks the number of contact tracers is “sufficient to meet demand.”

As of last Wednesday, she said on average, it takes about 75 hours for contact tracers to reach the original positive case and 36 hours to reach their contacts.

Dr. Whyte said she thinks that because the contact tracers do not call from a local number, it causes some distrust in people. They tend not to answer the phone. If they do, they may not feel comfortable sharing information with the contact tracer.

Neel said about 3% of positive cases and 4% of their contacts are declining the health department’s phone call.

“It’s an 877 number, and not everybody will answer that,” Whyte said. “There are a lot of people who got into this politicized part of it, in that you shouldn’t share any information.”

According to Governor John Bel Edwards’ website, the call will come from the Louisiana Department of Health at this number: 877-766-2130.

Neel said the state is developing an app and hoping it is ready for use next month.

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