UT Health Austin seeking more than 100 contact tracers as COVID-19 surges in Central Texas

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the delta variant continues to spread across Central Texas, UT Health Austin’s contact tracing department is in desperate need of help. They’re looking for more than 100 volunteer contact tracers, and to hire four additional people as full-time staff.

Contact tracing helps stop the spread of COVID-19 by identifying outbreaks and warning people of exposure before they spread the virus to others. The role also involves helping people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 connect to resources like testing and vaccines.

The department needs more people to help after they scaled down operations while case numbers were low. During the COVID-19 surge in January, UT Health Austin had around 120 volunteer contact tracers, they’re down to roughly 30 right now.

“As everyone knows the summer was very quiet,” Jennifer Sarchet-Morgan, the operations manager for the contact tracing department at UT Health Austin, said. “So we’re definitely looking to up that.”

The department would ideally like to have closer to 125-150 volunteer contact tracers to deal with the high number of COVID-19 cases being reported. Volunteers are asked to work roughly eight hours a week. The position is virtual.

“We’re desperately needing that support to try to catch up with what’s happening in the community and to get started with the school year,” Sarchet-Morgan said.

They’re also hiring four full-time employees to match staffing levels from January.

JD Lewis is one of those people. He started as a volunteer back in 2020 after losing much of his work when the pandemic started. He has since worked his way into a full-time role with UT Austin Health.

“I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be and felt that this could be a way that I could provide some meaningful impact to the community while I was figuring things out,” Lewis said. “I found that I really did love the work.”

Lewis says over the course of the pandemic, the role has changed. Most recently, he says each case takes longer to investigate.

“We are seeing a greater number of contacts on average per cases and it’s because people relaxed a little bit more,” Lewis said. Because of vaccine availability, mandates being lifted and the overall state of the pandemic, people feel more comfortable being out and about, he suspects. That means people who are sick make more contacts than they did previously.

UT Health Austin’s contact tracing department does much of its contact tracing for UT Austin students, but it works under the umbrella of Austin Public Health, which does contact tracing more broadly. In a COVID-19 Q&A Friday Janet Pichette, APH’s chief epidemiologist, confirmed that contact tracing is being strained by the number of COVID-19 cases reported in Austin-Travis County over the past month.

“They’ve been working pretty hard, seven days a week to try to get that completed,” Pichette said. “We also tell people if you are a positive case it’s best that you notify all your close contacts to make sure they are placed in quarantine.”

According to the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 dashboard, there were 753 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday.

You can sign up or find more information about what’s required of volunteer contact tracers on UT Health Austin’s website.

You can apply for the full time position on UT Health Austin’s job opportunities page.

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