Patchwork approach to contact tracing hampers national recovery

Patchwork approach to contact tracing hampers national recovery
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A patchwork approach to contact tracing across state health departments is making it increasingly difficult to know where people are getting exposed to COVID-19.

While some states like Louisiana and Washington state publicly track detailed data related to COVID-19 cases in bars, camps, daycares, churches, worksites and restaurants, most states do not, creating obstacles to preventing future cases.

The extensive spread of the virus, combined with the country's 50-state approach to pandemic response, has led to a dearth of information about where transmissions are occurring. Those shortcomings are in turn complicating efforts to safely open the economy and to understand the risks associated with certain activities and settings.

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Experts know COVID-19 spreads in crowded indoor spaces, but more specifics could help state and local lawmakers strike a better balance between public health needs and those of the economy.

"If you want to take a more targeted approach to public health measures, the more information you have the better," said Joshua Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation and an infectious disease epidemiologist.

"Rather than have a blunt, close-everything-down approach, you could be a bit more targeted and surgical about how you implement certain measures," he added.

The Hill asked every state for information about the data they collect and share as part of their contact tracing programs, one of the main tools public health officials have to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Most states release information about outbreaks and cases at congregate settings like nursing homes, meatpacking plants, and prisons, which comprise the majority of cases. But there is less information publicly available about the numbers of cases or outbreaks tied to other settings commonly visited by people.

A handful of states including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington track and publicly release data on the settings where COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring, according to responses from state health departments.

For example, Louisiana has tied 468 cases to bars in the state, but most of the new cases in the past week have been tied to food processing plants.

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In The Hill's review of publicly available state data, other settings for COVID-19 transmission include restaurants, childcare centers, gyms, colleges and schools, churches, retailers, weddings and other private social events. It is not clear how widely those settings contributed to infections because widespread transmission of the virus means many people who get sick do not get interviewed by contact tracers — over the past week, there has been an average of 42,000 confirmed cases, though many more are likely going undetected.

State health departments in Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia told The Hill they don’t track location data.

Utah tracks outbreaks and cases tied to workplaces and schools, but not restaurants or bars.

Arizona, California, Delaware, Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania track infection locations, but don’t release it to the public.

“The number of people getting COVID-19 from isolated, identifiable outbreaks, such as those in long term care facilities, is decreasing, and more people are contracting COVID-19 from being out and about in their community, such as when visiting restaurants and bars,” said Maggi Mumma, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Bars, indoor dining and gyms are still closed in most of New York and New Jersey, so there is no current data to track for those settings.

But the state health departments also don’t release data on outbreaks or cases tied to other settings like childcare or retail stores.

Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and Wisconsin release the number of cases tied to outbreaks in the community but do not go into specifics about possible transmission sites.

For example, Minnesota lists nearly 7,000 cases as being tied to "community" exposure, but that includes settings like restaurants, bars and workspaces.

In Iowa, a state health department spokesperson said the agency is working on extracting and sharing this type of data on its website, while Maine would not say if they track by specific location.

The remaining state health departments did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Hill and don’t have information about outbreaks or exposure settings on their websites.

Several states said local health departments may be tracking infection locations even if the state is not.

Experts said such a decentralized approach can miss outbreaks if local departments aren’t communicating with each other, meaning any data should be public.

“I do think it would be very valuable for states to make that information public,” said Crystal Watson, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“It helps us collectively get a better understanding as policymakers, as people trying to help in the response. It can also help with personal decision making for people to understand ... where it's most dangerous to go related to getting infected," Watson said.

The disparities between state health departments are partially due to a lack of federal guidance.

There are no federal requirements on the information contact tracers collect; guidelines vary from state to state, and sometimes from county to county.

Tracking data about where people are getting sick would allow states to take a “cluster busting” approach, experts said, by working backwards from confirmed cases to find where patients might have first contracted the disease, potentially stopping future outbreaks.

That approach requires a change in mindset for contact tracers, who typically focus on reaching close contacts of confirmed cases who might have been exposed to the virus. But research shows between 10 and 20 percent of people are responsible for about 80 percent of new infections, mostly through so-called super-spreader events.

“We know that the way this virus has transmitted is highly clustered groups and anytime you have settings where a lot of people are together in one place,” said Kaiser's Michaud.

“Collecting good information on this — the cluster busting approach — is a good way to find out where your prevention efforts can have the best bang for your buck," he said.

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At the same time, some state programs are still not operating at full force and are struggling to keep up with widespread infections.

"I think that many parts of the country, especially outside of the Northeast ... simply have too many cases to use contact tracing as the primary public health measure to control cases,"  said Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health.

"It's just not enough,” he said. “We just don't have enough resources, and in a lot of these places enough contact tracers, to follow up on all of the cases.”