As COVID variants circulate in Utah, experts say contact tracing is critical

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Contact tracing has played an important role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While cases are on the decline, contact tracing efforts remain a priority for public health as six variants of concern circulate within the state.

In Utah, the first case of COVID-19 was detected in early March of last year. Since then, Salt Lake County Health Department contact tracers have spent countless hours calling people to let them know they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

“We started out with one case, and then two case, and then exponentially, it got really, really huge within a matter of a month or two, so we got overwhelmed,” said Tair Kiphibane, the county health department’s infectious disease manager.

Contact tracing has been all-hands-on deck throughout the pandemic.

“At the peak, it was about running anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 cases a day,” Kiphibane said. “We have to reach out to all of them [close contacts] and then some of them might start getting sick too, then it’s reaching out to their contacts, too, and then it’s just contacts of contacts and it’s extensive.”

And at the height of it, she said more than 400 people were tasked with calling those infected with COVID-19 and delegating some contact tracing efforts to them, because of the mass amounts of tracing efforts that needed to be done.

“We asked them to reach out to their contacts, whether it’s work, social, or household,” Kiphibane said.

As cases continue to decline, Kiphibane said contact tracing efforts have shifted back to health department officials calling those who may have been exposed, and they’ve been able to scale back on the number of contact tracers.

Even with cases down, Kiphibane said public health officials thought contact tracing may slow down, but now, highly transmissible variants could threaten public health.

“The people infected with variants could get more sick, they’re more resistant, and we just don’t want more people to get sick or have more severe symptoms,” she said.

Public health officials recognize variants of concern spread more quickly than the original COVID-19 strain. Because of how quickly it can transmit, Kiphinbane said it requires more extensive work for contact tracers.

For now, Kiphibane said contact tracing is not over.

“I don’t really see the end to this, I’m hoping, and I’m hopeful that at one point that we’re going to maybe wrap it up, but it’s still really unpredictable,” she said.

Courtesy: Salt Lake County Health Department

Throughout the pandemic, Kiphibane said some employees have received ‘thank you’ letters from the community, which she said has reminded contact tracers that their efforts have made a difference.

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