Could surging COVID-19 cases impair contact tracing? LSU Health infectious disease expert weighs in

Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 7:40 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Contact tracing is critical to battling the spread of COVID-19, according to public health experts, but surging cases of the virus could put contact tracing at a disadvantage.

Dr. Fred Lopez is an LSU Health Infectious Disease specialist.

“Once the numbers explode it becomes very hard to do contact tracing because of the sheer number of people and again adding to this challenge is the fact that not everybody is responding to the calls from contact tracers and the fact that test results are being delayed due to supply chain issues that have been well-documented and those delays allow for the transmission of additional infections to occur because we can’t reach out to those exposed individuals early enough,” Lopez said.

Like other states Louisiana is feeling the pinch of supply chain issues that are affecting the pace of getting results of coronavirus testing.

“We know that contact tracing is going to be more effective if we can reach out to people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 sooner rather than later,” said Lopez. “The longer we wait, the more these individuals can transmit the infection because we have a delay time in knowing whether people are infected with COVID-19, so it does make it an additional challenge when there are delays in the reporting times for our tests.”

Even before the resurgence of COVID cases in the state, Louisiana’s reopening of the economy involved contact tracing. The state announced months ago that it had a goal of 700 contact tracers, but the Louisiana Department of Health said currently there are 431 contact tracers with 200 more projected to be added by July 20.

Some public health officials on the national stage said recently they doubt contact tracing can happen effectively with so many cases of the virus happening quickly across the country.

Lopez said contact tracing is less of a challenge when there is a manageable number of cases.

“Well, it just makes it easier to do more effective contact tracing if you have numbers that are very manageable with the number of contact tracers that you have available to you, so the lower number of cases the more effective contact tracing is going to be because they can reach out to those individuals as quickly as possible and hopefully then be able to then reach out to those people who have been exposed to those individuals with active infections in order to determine whether they need to be quarantined,” he said.

Additionally, Lopez said mask-wearing and social distancing are also important in reducing the spread of the virus.

“We welcome reinforcement, if you will, of masking from the governor, from our local health officials; the message is an important one and it is part of what we have as non-pharmaceutical interventions to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” said Lopez. “All along we’ve been saying that wearing masks, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, avoiding large groups are all extremely important in the mitigation of this pandemic.”

Governor John Bel Edwards’ new mask-wearing mandate is in effect statewide.

“It’s not just the mandate that you need to watch, watch the example set by the president on Saturday when he visited the hospital, see what’s coming out of the CDC and the White House Coronavirus Task Force,” said Edwards mere hours after the mandate took effect on Monday (July 13).

President Trump wore a mask during his visit to Walter Reed Medical Center.

Edwards said evidence of the resurgence in cases is available for all to see.

“Look at the numbers for yourself and see the resurgence of this virus here in Louisiana and elsewhere, even without the mandate we should have seen compliance going up and improving,” said Edwards.

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