As Texas prepares to move to phase two of reopening the economy and looser COVID-19 safety restrictions, the state still doesn’t have the 4,000 contact tracing agents Gov. Greg Abbott promised, but progress is being made.
Contact tracing is the process of interviewing people who have had COVID-19, identifying who they have had close contact with within a certain time frame and then reaching out to those contacts to inform them of possible exposure.
Dr. LaChauncy Woodard is a professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine with a master’s degree in public health. She is one of the instructors who is currently working on turning out the needed professionals to meet the governor’s mandate.
Working in conjunction with the City of Houston and the Harris County Public Health Department, the program is a 12-hour, four-module course aimed at getting people ready to enter the workforce as contact tracers. The classes are free, virtual and self-paced. At the end of the course, there is a certification of completion. Currently, the classes are open only to University of Houston staff, faculty and students, but they will have a public-facing version ready in June.
Even with the limits of the only using UH applicants, Woodard said, they have already received 1,500 interested parties for the program — more than a third of Abbott’s total.
“The biggest reason is that everyone wants to be a part of the solution,” said Woodard. “We’re faced with a large pandemic, and everyone desires to go back to normalcy. They get it’s critical to be a part of that. To stem the tide, we have to join together. Contact tracing will hopefully help us get the upper hand on this virus.”
Training involves understanding the vectors of COVID-19, basic contact tracing protocols for determining who infected people have possibly spread the virus to, public health communication strategies, and ethics. Woodard said that the privacy of individuals is paramount, and tracers will not seek information like social security number or immigration status.
“We do talk about diverse populations and address specific issues where we have seen large health disparities in COVID-19,” said Woodard. “Particularly African American and Hispanic populations as well as the homeless. Contact tracing isn’t about obtaining personal information like social security numbers or immigration status.”
Though the program will handle making a workforce available for contact tracing, it will be up to the counties and other health organizations to actually employ the tracers in paid and volunteer positions once their certification is completed. Recruits will be provided with available opportunities at the end of the course.
The cost of the contact tracing program is significant. Like more than a dozen states, Texas has employed Albany-based MTX to handle some of the ramp-up toward the governor’s goal. The company has signed a $259 million deal with the state to support and train new tracers. The money comes from federal relief funds.
The bulk of the money will go to a new call center. Texas had already set up a call center prior to the deal using the 211 system, but it was quickly overrun. The MTX project will hopefully provide a communication solution for the duration of the crisis, in addition to putting another 1,000 contact tracers to work. Previously, the company had done disease monitoring in New York, the hardest hit state in the country, which made the firm attractive to Texas.
Contact tracing is important at this stage in the pandemic. Though the state is allowing many businesses to operate under guidelines to prevent spread, the virus remains very active.
Rebecca Fischer from the Texas A&M University School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics has been working with the Brazos County Health District on identifying community spread in the region. She acknowledges that the nature of COVID-19 makes tracing difficult.
Some of the infected people are asymptomatic, others are symptomatic but slow to show, and sometimes the symptoms mask as those other less-deadly diseases or allergies. Tracing the vectors of infection makes it easier to see how the virus is getting around, especially as the state tries to resume semi-normal economic activity.
“It would appear that the increase in the number of new cases each day has slowed, but the numbers are still very high and do not show signs of decrease at this stage,” Fischer told Texas A&M Today. “The re-opening of gathering spots like beaches, malls and retail businesses with close contact between customers could lead to a rapid acceleration of the disease. We can expect an increase in the number of infections as we increase personal interaction, but we can try to control what this spike in cases will look like if we can interact responsibly. Monitoring the numbers over the next 10 to 14 days will be extremely important.”
The end of May is the current target for having the rest of the contact tracing army in place.