Contact tracers brace for COVID-19 case increase as Texas reopens businesses

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Photo Credit: Alejandra Gavilanes | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

This week, over 1,000 COVID-19 contact tracers will be recruited across Texas, including 110 at Dell Medical School, as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen businesses throughout the state, city health officials said.

Dell Medical School and Austin Public Health are preparing to expand their team of volunteer tracers who call people diagnosed with COVID-19 to ask about their travel and people they have been in contact with. Dr. Darlene Bhavnani, an epidemiologist at the Dell Medical School Department of Population Health, said her 60-person team is able to manage the workload right now but expects that will soon change. She said they are bringing on 50 more volunteers this week.

“As Austin starts moving around more, our caseload will increase by a significant margin,” Bhavnani said. “We are spending a lot of time trying to streamline our operations to get ready for that.”

Abbott let the statewide stay at home order expire on Friday, May 1, allowing certain businesses to open under safety standards. According to the governor's Report to Open Texas, he brought together 1,000 tracers from schools of public health across the state, community health workers, medical and nursing students and public school nurses. 

“During the next two weeks, they will add another 1,000 tracers,” Abbott said at a news conference April 27. “They will deploy the contact tracing application statewide and deploy the COVID-19 contact tracing call center statewide. (Phase three of the program) will use the month of May to build a team of 4,000 contact tracers.”

At Dell Medical School’s center, volunteers call people with positive COVID-19 cases and ask them a script of questions about their travels and contacts nine days prior to the onset of their symptoms. The tracers then call the other contacts and ask them to get tested if they have symptoms and self-quarantine for two weeks either way.

“That self-quarantine is the key to limiting transmission,” Bhavnani said. “We want them to limit their interactions with the community and stay home as much as possible so we can stop transmission right then.” 

Bhavnani said anyone can volunteer by emailing Dell Medical School at  contacttracing@austin.utexas.edu, and they are working on a volunteer sign-up website. Aspiring volunteers will have to go through Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act training so they know how to protect the privacy of the people they call. 

The city currently has 30 people investigating cases and is partnering with local hospitals, said city spokesperson Andy Tate. He said the city rolled out Monday the Public Testing Enrollment Form through a web link sent to those who test positive, which will send an automatic exposure questionnaire to those who test positive. The questionnaire also asks about travel and people they have been in contact with. 

“Contact tracing is going to become more automated with an email and a follow-up call,” Tate said. “We have a scalable plan to increase or decrease the number of our epidemiologists as needed.”

Bhavnani said contact tracing is vital to ensure there is not a second outbreak as the state opens up, but tracing also needs to be coupled with increased testing so they can stop chains of transmissions.

“By getting to these contacts early on and getting them to stay home without the order, we are really stopping that chain of transmission as the state opens up and people start moving around a lot more,” Bhavnani said.