DHEC not using all of its contact tracing staff as coronavirus cases set records in South Carolina

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COLUMBIA, SC (WBTW/AP) – After a record-setting month for positive coronavirus tests in South Carolina, DHEC isn’t using all of its contact tracing employees who identify and monitor people possibly exposed to COVID-19.

DHEC’s website boasted of 1,000 contact tracers, as of last Thursday, and access to more than 4,000 through contracts with private staffing companies. That information has been removed since News13 questioned the numbers.

DHEC’s website now says the state has more than 330 staffers trained “to perform case investigations,” along with 225 active contact monitors who call people to check on symptoms. Another 375 contact monitors “will be deployed,” according to DHEC’s website, but it didn’t give a precise timeline.

Covid Act Now, a nonprofit made up of epidemiologists, health experts, and policy leaders, calls the coronavirus situation in South Carolina “critical” and says the state’s preparedness may be “dangerously below international standards.”

Among other things, the nonprofit says the state’s infection rate indicates a need of “8,080 contact tracing staff to trace all new cases in 48 hours before too many other people are infected.” Covid Act Now estimates the state’s current staffing can only trace 5% of new cases in 48 hours.

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“These low levels of tracing suggest there may be an active outbreak underway in South Carolina, or almost no tracing capacity exists,” the nonprofit said. “Aggressive action urgently needed.”

Asked whether the state is struggling to hire tracers, DHEC representatives didn’t directly respond during a media briefing on Thursday. They also didn’t directly answer at what point DHEC would activate 4,000 tracers it previously said are available from staffing companies. Its website now claims “we have the ability to expand our personnel capacity as needed.”

Dr. Joan Duwve, DHEC’s Director of Public Health, pointed to a software program while explaining why not all contact tracers were in use.

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“That system took a little bit longer than we had originally anticipated to get rolled out,” Duwve said. “That’s just recently [rolled out.] So as we build capacity to use this program, it will greatly increase the number of people that we can be in touch with in a period of time, every day for example. We will need to bring on additional contact monitors to keep up with that case load.” 

According to DHEC’s website, 375 contact monitors who have been trained but not activated “will be deployed as we roll out our new patient management software that will expand our capacity to rapidly reach contacts, provide education on the importance of quarantine, and will allow us to monitor them during their period of quarantine for additional educational opportunities as needed.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell recently warned that the rate of infection in South Carolina had made contact tracing for all patients nearly impossible. She said the state would need to focus on cases in places like nursing homes, prisons, and large gatherings.

 “As cases increase, we have to prioritize on settings where the risk is higher,” Bell said.

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