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Concerns Mount Over Whether Contact Tracing Will Be A Match For COVID-19

CHICAGO (CBS) — For months, we’ve heard contact tracing will bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.

But will that work?

As CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reported Wednesday evening, there is concern that contact tracing may not be a match for the magnitude of COVID-19.

There are all sorts of reasons for that. First, there’s the fact the nation can’t seem to churn out tracers fast enough.

But there are also the challenges of those unwilling to speak with a contact tracer. After all, it is a call from a stranger asking some personal questions.

“I decided the only way I could really help is if I became a contact tracer,” said Ina Pinkney of Lakeview.

So Pinkney, a retired chef once known as the “Breakfast Queen” with her Ina’s Kitchen restaurant, went online for certification for this new mission through the Johns Hopkins University contact tracing program.

Pinkney herself has post-polio syndrome that has affected her mobility, and knows the difference a vaccine makes based on the nation’s experience with polio generations ago. She wants to make sure she is on the front lines of the pandemic to try to make a difference.

She is committed, but she has run into issues.

“It’s very difficult to get people to talk to you when they don’t want to talk to you,” she said.

Oakton Community College has been training contact tracers too. Students are made aware of the challenges of mapping COVID-19 by connecting with those who have encountered positive patients and may be exposed themselves.

“You are dealing with people’s private lives, and some of them feel the government shouldn’t know everything,” Pinkney said.

Nationwide spikes in new COVID-19 cases reached 48,000 yesterday, the most in a single day. Because much of the spread involves large public interaction, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said contact tracing may not be as effective as once hoped.

“That is very difficult to make work under those circumstances,” Fauci said on Monday.

“With the current uptick, it can overwhelm the system – there is no doubt,” added Dr. John Schneider of the community-based Howard Brown Health.

Schneider directs a team of 50 full-time contact tracers locally. He worries the neighborhoods coping most with COVID-19 may be reluctant to take a call from a stranger because of struggles with immigration or the policing system.

“A lot of these communities hit hard by COVID are Black and Brown people,” Schneider said.

When asked if he felt Chicago has enough contact tracers, Schneider said we do not.

There are roughly 100 contact tracers in Chicago, and the city has just announced partnerships with local schools to train 600 more by fall. And those tracers will have to confront the challenges.

“So there’s a lot of very careful treading that you have to do,” Pinkney said.

These response challenges are significant.

As of this week, only 300 of San Antonio, Texas’ 2,500 cases under review bothered to respond. In New York City, tracers there could only complete an interview with half of all positive cases.

It is recommended by public health officials that 75 percent of people should respond if a contact tracing program is going to be of any use.

As to the 600 contact tracers coming to Chicago, that number should be sufficient if COVID-19 levels remain where they are. But an uptick could require a need for more.

The recommended number of tracers is 30 per 100,000 U.S. residents. That’s a need of 100,000 tracers nationwide, and right now, we have about 28,000.

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