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Utah Is Ready To Move Into 2nd Phase Of COVID-19 Response


Many health experts say that before it's safe to call off social distancing, America needs to move to a second phase of response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That phase should be about contact tracing. This is where people who come into contact with those who test positive are identified, tested and isolated. Utah is one of the states that is getting ready for this. Andrew Becker with member station KUER in Salt Lake City reports.

ANDREW BECKER, BYLINE: Contact tracing is a decades-old tactic in the public health playbook for responding to infectious diseases. But it hasn't been one that states have been able to use because of a lack of testing capacity that's only now starting to scale up.

ANDREW PAVIA: What we need is enough capacity to test everyone who's ill and to have capacity to then test their contacts.

BECKER: Dr. Andrew Pavia is the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah. He says that Utah now has the capacity to do 5,000 tests a day - more than double what they've been doing. State officials say that they should soon ramp up to 7,000 a day with an additional push from the local tech sector. Still, Pavia says Utah, with a population of just over 3 million people, isn't quite ready for full-scale contact tracing.

PAVIA: Well, I don't think anyone is ready to do it effectively today. The good news, though, is that contact tracing becomes really important after you get past the peak and you're able to start letting up on some of the physical distancing. So we have time to build the tools that we need. And those tools include an army, essentially, of contact tracers.

BECKER: State epidemiologist Angela Dunn says some 1,200 state employees have signed up to help with contact tracing. Of those, about 160 have been trained and are already on the job. She says, that's on top of about 50 state health officials who are assisting local departments, where most of the on-the-ground work is done. There have been about 2,500 confirmed cases, roughly 20 deaths, from the disease here so far. Forecasts for when the peak will hit range from days to weeks.

ANGELA DUNN: You know, anybody who's come into close contact with a confirmed case, they need to be followed up with daily to assess for their symptoms. Their temperatures and symptoms are checked twice a day. And that's currently what our state teams are doing for a handful of jurisdictions.

BECKER: Dunn credits the state's early efforts of social distancing for putting Utah in a position to be ready for contact tracing, even though the state is one of about seven that doesn't have a mandatory stay-at-home order. Effective contact tracing goes beyond simply tracking down people who've had contact with someone who's tested positive. They sometimes need to be convinced to cooperate, including self-isolating or being quarantined for up to two weeks, when that could cost them a job or they don't have a place to go.

KRISTEN COX: And that is not a problem of epidemiology. That is a logistics problem.

BECKER: Kristen Cox is the executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget. She says that Utah is unique in approaching the pandemic as an operations problem. She says, it's like a great chef who needs a good restaurant manager.

COX: And we need the medical community and their expertise. But you also need a machine that can move all these parts. And there's a lot of parts to move and a lot of parts that need to work together.

BECKER: Cox says that it takes a whole of government approach at local, state and federal levels. But just like the virus itself, putting that all together can appear invisible. But once all the elements are in place, then there can be a recipe for success. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Becker in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Becker joined KUER in 2018 as the host and producer of an upcoming investigative podcast before becoming news director. He spent more than a decade covering border, homeland and national security issues, most recently for The Center for Investigative Reporting + Reveal in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse, with stories ranging from corruption and the expanded use of drones along the U.S.-Mexico border to police militarization and the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, terrorism and drug trafficking. His reporting has appeared in news outlets such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and PBS/FRONTLINE, been cited in U.S. Supreme Court and District Court briefs and highlighted by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight.” His work has been recognized by the Online News Association, Society of Professional Journalists and been nominated for a National Emmy, among others. He has taught at the University of Utah, and won fellowships from John Jay College in New York City and the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He also sits on an advisory board for the National Center on Disability and Journalism, based at Arizona State University. He received a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.