Austin needs more than double its current number of virus contact tracers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Public Health says its target is to hire 115 contact tracers, a need exacerbated by the state’s re-opening and a subsequent spike in COVID-19 cases.

APH says it has been bringing on about 10 people a week. The tracers will do the work of contacting people who may have been exposed to the virus.

Including the 10 tracers that were brought on this week, the city now has 48 contact tracers. UT’s Dell Medical School has 20 additional contact tracers who assist in the effort.

As Austin moves into Stage 4 because of an increase in hospitalizations, the city is tracking a number of clusters tied to restaurants, which can now operate at 75%, per state of Texas orders.

APH says between May 21 and June 4, it tracked four clusters to the food service industry, for a total of 12 cases.

Local leaders have expressed concerns that the state is moving too quickly in its re-opening. Austin 311 took 21 calls related to social distancing and over-occupancy violations.

“What we need in Austin, where we have a certain level of density and an attractive bar and restaurant scene, is to be moving through these phases a little more cautiously,” said Adam Orman, Co-owner and General Manager of the restaurant L’Oca d’Oro.

That’s why a group of businesses decided to implement stricter rules for re-opening. L’Oca d’Oro is one of the more than 40 restaurants that make up Good Work Austin.

The group has come together to write a re-opening agreement so it can better protect restaurant employees and allow customers to “dine with confidence.”

The guidelines included in the agreement are stricter than the state’s. For example, each restaurant has a mask requirement for customers when they aren’t eating or drinking.

Each restaurant will also include an “Employee Wellness Charge” to help their employees through this time.

In addition, customers will be required to give their name and complete a “Health Declaration.” The primary goal of this is so restaurants can do their own contact tracing. If a restaurant employee gets sick, the business can reach out to customers who dined there and let them know about a possible exposure.

“It makes it feel all the more necessary the more we see what questions are arising, and the more we see restaurants being attacked for having to close if they’ve already re-opened,” said Orman.

According to the COVID-19 spending framework recently passed by City Council, Austin will dedicate $4.7 million to its epidemiology response. This includes case investigation, contact tracing, and active monitoring.

But APH Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott says contact tracing is just one part of the occasion.

He says another challenge with the increase in cases and testing is the delay in getting test results back. That in turn delays contact tracers being able to reach out to those who may have been exposed.

It’s not uncommon to be notified of a new case from a week ago that had an onset of symptoms three or four days before that,” said Dr. Escott.

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