As COVID-19 cases surge, Austin Public Health says contact tracing isn’t doing much

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott briefed Travis County commissioners on the spread of COVID-19 locally Tuesday, alarming numbers were paired with alarming news that contact tracing efforts may not be very effective in slowing the spread locally.

Escott shared data slides with the Commissioners Court, showing the dramatic increases.

APH data shows that while until recently the doubling rate of positive cases was at about four to five weeks in Travis County, it’s now only taking two to three weeks for the total number of positive cases to double. That shows that cases can grow at an exponential rate.

Escott says hospital admissions have increased 90% since May 31. Until recently, Travis County was admitting 8-10 COVID-19 patients a day. Now, he says area hospitals are averaging about 25-30 COVID-19 admissions per day.

According to APH data, ICU bed occupancy has increased 150% since May 31, and ventilator use has gone up more than 75% since that date.

Escott says currently, Travis County area hospitals are using a little more than 10% of their total capacity of hospital beds, however that number is worse than it sounds. Because of the exponential nature of the virus, he predicts that usage will quickly rise to 30%, then 70%, then close to 110% of capacity very quickly.

Escott says the rate of people testing positive for COVID-19 went up from 5.8% to 7.3% last week, showing that the area is not just getting more results because more people are being tested. Rather, he says, that positivity rate increase demonstrates the increasing spread of the virus in the community.

As case numbers surge, contact tracing isn’t proving to be very effective

Escott told commissioners Tuesday that under current circumstances, contact tracing isn’t offering a solution to curbing the spread of the virus. He added that the county is trying to broaden its approach and find other ways to slow the spread.

“I’m concerned that the public is over-reliant on that contact tracing piece, because to a large extent, public health has sold that as a solution,” Escott said.

This week, APH has begun giving masks out to symptomatic patients at drive-thru testing sites, in an attempt to help those patients slow the spread of the virus within their own households.

As for contact tracing, Escott said, “When we look at the efficacy of contact tracing in other countries where it worked, that contact tracing happened when the places generally were shut down, when people weren’t moving around. That’s not what we’re doing here. Things have still opened, and we’re trying to contact trace at the same time we’re getting hundreds, or perhaps a thousand, cases a day being reported in. I’m not sure that’s going to give us what we need.”

Escott said in many cases, contact tracing has even become ineffective locally, because some labs are taking too long to report positive cases to APH. In many cases, those labs aren’t reporting the cases in the most effective way, either.

Escott says every day, more than a thousand test results are faxed to Austin Public Health, rather than reported digitally. APH staff members must then sift through the results manually. And in some cases in which people have tested positive, Escott says, the faxed test results don’t include contact information for patients, so staff members have to do detective work to track them down before they can make contact tracing calls.

Escott says it’s not uncommon for someone who tests positive for COVID-19 to go a week to 10 days before hearing from a contact tracer.

“If we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on contact tracing but we don’t have a solution that gets results in a timely fashion, it’s a wasted investment,” he told county commissioners.

Commissioners asked Dr. Escott to give them the names of labs not following the state’s orders to send results digitally so that they can look into taking legal action against those slowing down the reporting and contact tracing process.

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