Carroll County’s health officer said the local health department has exceeded its contact tracing capacity.
With the rise in COVID-19 cases, the Carroll County Health Department has resorted to using a state contractor, NORC and its call center in Chicago to help with tracing close contacts.
Health Officer Ed Singer said at last week’s Carroll County Board of Education meeting that the heath department was overwhelmed with contact tracing logs. And if the COVID-19 cases continue to rise, “you guys are kind of going to be on your own.”
That was part of his reasoning for recommending the school board not move forward with hybrid learning for high schools that was scheduled for the following day. But the school board voted unanimously to go ahead for at least one more week. Board of education members are scheduled to vote to go back to virtual learning for all students during Wednesday night’s meeting.
Singer said last week if the local health department has 20 or 30 more “tracing activities” from the high schools, they will not be able to support that.
He said in an interview on Tuesday that he thinks the state and nation are overstretched with contact tracing. It was predicted COVID-19 numbers would increase around this time but he does not think anyone was prepared for the numbers they are seeing today.
The health officer said they would hire more people at the local health department. But Nov. 11 was the first day they had to send calls to the Chicago call center.
Superintendent Steve Lockard said at last week’s meeting that the outsourcing of contact tracing is a big concern of his. But protocols for the school’s part in contact tracing, which is identifying students or staff who are close contacts, have not changed, according to Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for CCPS.
Singer said he prefers to do everything locally and it is important for the county to take the lead on local cases. But staff at Carroll’s health department have already been reassigned to help in other areas, which takes away from other daily responsibilities, Singer said.
“We’re already tapped out for resources,” he said Nov. 11. “There’s only so much I can do with the number of resources we have.”
Carroll Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said if the health department is comfortable utilizing and relying on a call center to do “whatever we can’t do here” then it’s OK with him.
Singer said at the meeting, if his department received 50 cases a day, for example, each case could have five close contacts. Health department staff have to call 250 people for that day of cases, in addition to checking on people in quarantine. It results to a couple thousand calls a day.
“We’re beyond our limit at this point,” he told board members.
The school system’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 37 people within the schools had the virus and 124 people had COVID-19 symptoms as of Nov. 11.
According to Carroll County Health Department data released Monday afternoon, Carroll saw 215 community cases of COVID-19 last week, by far the highest weekly total in the eight months of the pandemic. The previous high had been 143, set the week of Nov. 1.
For last week, Carroll averaged 19.7 total cases per day per 100,000 in population, roughly three times what the number was when hybrid learning began Oct. 19. According to Maryland State Department of Education guidelines, counties are expected to “reassess” if they see an increase of two cases per 100,000 in a two-week span.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday that bars and restaurants will be required to close at 10 p.m. starting Friday after 5 p.m. On the same day and time, retail and religious institutions will revert back to 50% capacity. And no fans will be allowed at professional and collegiate stadiums and racetracks.
Hogan said the state had about 1,400 contact tracers and he does not believe its capacity is a problem.
“Our problem is that so many people refuse to give their information,” he said at the news presser.
He said the state launched a COVID-19 tracking app last week and about a million people have used it.
Singer said leaving it to a call center outside the county could impact timing. And contact tracing within 24 hours is most effective, he said.
“The quicker we contact people the better off we are,” he said.
On Tuesday, Singer said he does not have the statistics to prove it but would assume they are not meeting the 24-hour goal at the moment.
“The timing will be a significant challenge,” Karl Streaker, director of student services, said during the school board meeting.
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Streaker said he hopes people will follow the rules that would mitigate the spread.