DC ends coronavirus contact tracing effort, laying off 131 workers

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The DC Health Department has terminated 131 members of its coronavirus contact tracing program, a spokesperson confirmed Thursday, marking the official end of a city program launched more than two years ago to curb the spread of the virus.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) launched the “DC Contact Trace Force” in April 2020, with a mandate to interview residents who had tested positive for the virus and find out the severity of their symptoms, close contacts potentials and the places they visited while infectious. . Then, through phone calls and home visits, members of the force sought to counsel people who might have been exposed to the quarantine and get tested.

The city employed about 65 contact tracers early in the pandemic to help stop community spread, but Bowser funneled $2.3 million from the city’s emergency cash reserves into the program a month later. late to reinforce the staff. At its peak, the force included 430 contact tracers, said DC Health emergency response director Patrick Ashley — a mix of people with public health degrees and others trained on the job.

The team was down to 153 members by early June, Ashley said.

The department said 131 of those 153 plotters were laid off Thursday, 19 were hired into vacant positions and three others were assigned to another agency in the district.

Despite the downsizing, Ashley said contact tracing remains a core health department task: epidemiologists and disease investigators have long monitored the spread of hepatitis, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in the district. More recently, they have focused on monkeypox-related outbreaks.

“The reality is that even though we’ve built huge resources in the health department amid the pandemic, many of these systems existed before covid and aren’t going away,” Ashley said in an interview. “We’ve also demonstrated during covid that we can scale quickly, and the systems are in place to do that.”

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The city will still offer coronavirus exposure alerts for residents who signed up for the service on their cellphones, he added.

The reduction in coronavirus contact tracing accelerated this spring as cases caused by the highly infectious omicron variant began to decline. Ashley said the omicron wave, which hit over the winter, presented new challenges for contact tracers due to the rapid spread and volume of new cases.

“Omicron becomes contagious much faster – time from exposure to positive test is much faster and recovery time is much faster [than previous variants]”, Ashley said. “That was part of the reason [for] moving contact tracing; by the time the call came in, people were already showing symptoms or saying they had already tested positive. The value was not the same.

In recent months, members of the tracing force have often been given other public health roles: Bowser asked them in early June to call families with children who were not up to date with vaccinations from youth routine. In May, tracers were instructed to contact residents eligible for a coronavirus booster shot.

Force members who were still tasked with regular contact tracing duties were focused on the DC prison, nursing homes and health care facilities — environments at high risk for outbreaks that the department will continue to monitor. monitor, Ashley said.

New coronavirus cases in the district have trended downward since a brief spike in May, city data shows, with a weekly rate of about 196 cases per 100,000 population. By comparison, DC reported 866 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents in mid-January. In March, DC discontinued its daily coronavirus case reporting, which included outbreak data, instead switching to a weekly update on the number of new cases with a focus on metrics such as hospitalizations.

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Neil J. Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy at the University of Maryland, noted that these new reported cases — which mirror numbers reported by DC at times during the delta variants surge in late summer and in early fall 2021 – ignores many unreported rapid tests people can perform at home. He said it was prudent for residents to remain vigilant, especially as researchers continue to try to learn more about the lasting effects of coronavirus infection.

“What this means is that the responsibility is more on individuals to test themselves and be careful, and on infected people to contact people they have been around,” Sehgal said. “But do I understand why this is happening? Certainly.”

Sehgal noted that other jurisdictions have also reduced contact tracing operations: Health departments in Maryland and Virginia have shifted contact tracing efforts from all cases to a targeted approach focused on people with high risk, such as those over the age of 65 and those with comorbidities, and people in congregational settings such as nursing homes, schools, and state prisons.

Virginia waived investigation of all cases in January, while Maryland made the switch in April. A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health could not provide details on the size of its contact tracing team.

Maryland is keeping tabs on those infected through text, email and other digital means to help identify outbreaks early. During the January 2021 peak, when vaccines were not yet widely available, approximately 1,500 contact tracers were in place in Maryland; now there are about 500, according to Maryland Department of Health spokesman Chase Cook.

Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.