Local health departments ramp up contact tracing as Delta Variant spreads through region

Contact Tracer At Jasper County Health Department

JASPER COUNTY, Mo. – “Hi, this is Ashley at the Jasper County Health Department.”

Telling people that they’ve been exposed to Covid-19 is nothing new for the Jasper County Health Department. But, they did get a bit out of practice.

“Because we had such low case rates for so long, a lot of our contact tracers went on to other jobs,” says Jasper County Health Department Administrator Tony Moehr.

Now, case rates are much higher in the county. The highly infectious Delta Variant has caused case rates to go from a seven day rolling average of around three in May — to around 30 now. So now the department is working to hire more contact tracers to bring their total from one to six.

“We hate to put on a lot right now, and then have the case rates drop. But, at the same time, we can’t continue to be understaffed,” says Moehr.

In Barton County, it’s a different story. Barton County Health Department Director Joel Dermott says they were able to hold onto the extra staff they hired last year.

“So we feel pretty good about where we are right now. We’ll see how things go if things change,” says Dermott.

The basic way that contact tracing is done hasn’t really changed. If a resident tests positive, the people who are considered “close contacts” would be notified that they had been exposed to COVID-19, and need to quarantine. Close contact is currently considered being within six feet of someone who has tested positive for 15 minutes, or (in some cases) having direct physical contact with the person. But that changes if someone who’s been fully vaccinated enters the equation.

“As of right now, CDC considers fully vaccinated people as not requiring quarantine,” explains Moehr. “And so we would not quarantine someone who we know has been vaccinated.”

Asking if someone is vaccinated is the most common way of checking, but the health department also has the ability to check for themselves. Moehr explains that providers are required to enter the records of people vaccinated into the state’s Vaccine Navigator, which creates a list of people who have been inoculated. But, he explains that each county can only check the records of the county that lives there. So Jasper County wouldn’t be able to see if a Newton County resident has been vaccinated — or if a Kansas resident has been vaccinated.

We asked around to see if any other counties had the ability to access the system, and learned that Barton and McDonald County can, and that Kansas also has a much similar system set up.

The Joplin Health Department, however, may not have access. City of Joplin Public Information Officer Lynn Onstot told us, “We would not know if someone is fully vaccinated until we call them.” KOAM requested an interview with Health Department Director Ryan Talken to follow up, but he was unavailable on Wednesday due to the city’s ongoing computer system issues.

Another thing that has changed is the symptoms that patients present at the onset of infection with COVID-19. Moehr tells us the trademark symptom, loss of taste and smell, is no longer prevalent.

“Their onset of symptoms may be a runny nose or soar throat or something like that. But it progresses from there. We also seem to be seeing more gastro intestinal type illness associated with this. It seems like it’s a little more frequent now than what we were seeing in the past,” says Moehr.

Since the symptoms that COVID can present with are so widespread now, he recommends monitoring for any symptoms that are out of the ordinary that aren’t attributed to another illness.