116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Johnson County Public Health has shifted its COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, focusing on notification over case investigation of individual infections within the county.
As other local agencies are scaling back their contact tracing — or discontinuing the process altogether — Johnson County Public Health officials said it's a possibility that has come up more than once.
However, no decision on whether their overall strategy will change has been made at this time, said Sam Jarvis, the agency’s community health division manager.
“It is a topic that has been discussed on several occasions since the state discontinued last summer and, as always, we’re constantly re-evaluating processes and time and effort,” Jarvis said.
With the current surge of the novel coronavirus prompting case counts to reach totals not seen in more than a year, the county public health agency’s primary focus is on notification and sharing correct guidance, and “less on (contact) tracing and investigation.”
“Guidance has changed so much since the beginning and we continue to come across persons through current efforts that find it confusing, so there’s a heavy emphasis on education so that the community can be informed and make the safest choices for their situation,” Jarvis said.
This is a strategy the department has employed in past surges, he said.
Johnson County has scaled back its contact tracing capacity in this recent surge. Twenty contact tracers currently are employed at the department. The highest number of workers the department has had in previous months was 48, Jarvis said.
This past week, Linn County Public Health officially discontinued its contact tracing efforts. As of Jan. 1, county contact tracers were no longer conducting case investigation or notifying individuals of exposure to a positive case.
Eric Bradley, deputy director of Linn County Public Health, said the current record-breaking surge in infections meant contact tracing efforts likely wouldn’t have an impact on stopping the spread of the virus.
“Contact tracing is really meant to prevent further spread of disease in a specific region,” Bradley told The Gazette last week. “Whether or not we continue to do contact tracing, it will still spread.”
Linn County also took its cue from the state public health department, which officially ended routine contact tracing efforts for all individual COVID-19 cases statewide this past August.
The Iowa Department of Public Health’s coronavirus surveillance now follows model for tracing influenza, which prioritizes long-term care facility outbreaks, school outbreaks and infections among other vulnerable populations.
Many local public health departments nationwide scaled back contact tracing efforts as cases dropped this past spring and summer, and most did not have the resources to ramp up those efforts again in recent weeks, according to Kaiser Health News.
County-based contact tracing in Iowa typically has varied agency to agency throughout the pandemic, said Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association. Their approach to case investigation and notification depends on the individual agency workload, she said.
Tucker Reinders said that widely available at-home COVID-19 tests also have complicated public health officials’ ability to monitor virus transmission. Individuals who test positive with a rapid test they bought at the local pharmacy is not included in the state’s data, unless that individual follows up with a laboratory test.
“Because of that, contact tracing not as automatic,” she said. “There are more pieces of the puzzle.”
And because of that, it’s likely that Iowa is under reporting coronavirus cases statewide.
Tucker Reinders recommended anyone who tests positive using an at-home rapid test to follow up with a laboratory test through Test Iowa, the state’s free COVID-19 testing program.
Public health departments continue to encourage residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to obtain a booster shot.
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