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As state reopens, health departments start to hire more contact tracers

Contact tracers are health workers tasked with calling those who become infected and tracking down who they may have come into contact with.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Ohio and other states reopen, health officials are warning that more people could potentially interact with each other and there’s a chance those with COVID-19 could infect more people.

That’s why state and local health departments are starting to hire more coronavirus contact tracers – health workers tasked with calling those who become infected and tracking down who they may have come into contact with.

Joanne Pearsol, a deputy director with the Ohio Department of Health, says her department recently hired 100 contact tracers from a pool of more than 9,000 applicants. When asked if that will be enough, she said:

“Um, we will find out. We don’t know, we’d thought we’d start there. We are monitoring metrics to determine whether we need to make adjustments as we go.”

In late April, the federal government announced $631 million in federal CARES Act funding for states and other territories to help pay for additional coronavirus testing and hiring contact tracers.

But a report that same month from Johns Hopkins University noted that “we estimate that our public health workforce needs to add approximately 100,000 (paid or volunteer) contact tracers to assist with this large-scale effort.” The report’s summary went on to note that Congress may also need to approve $3.6 billion in emergency funding for state and local health departments.

Delaware County’s health department recently added four contact tracers with the plan to add four more – or as many as 15 if needed, the department said Monday. Franklin County Health Department, which initially had six contact tracers earlier this year, is now up to 25 with plans to add 20 more part-timers, according to Alexandria Jones with Franklin County Public Health.

While Ohio has more than 2,300 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and more than 38,000 confirmed cases, hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and ventilator use figures continue to be on a downward trend – the latest data posted Monday shows - a positive sign three months after Ohio recorded its first cases.

But health officials remain wary of potential spikes with more people traveling, going to work, going to parks and generally becoming more sociable in warmer months.

While hiring more contact tracers might increase outreach, there are still challenges. Adam Howard with Delaware General Health District says there has been some hesitation to cooperate with local health workers. He said he doesn’t blame them because they’re getting a call from a phone number they don’t recognize and may be hesitant to give up private health information, or they’re worried about having the local health department ask them to self-quarantine for two weeks or longer.

“We just need to reassure them that we are the local health district. We are just trying to help you - trying to make sure you are doing ok - trying to make sure that the folks you came into contact with are doing ok too,” Howard said.