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Utah Is One Of The States At The Forefront Of Contact Tracing


As America reopens, your safety partly depends on contact tracers. Those are investigators who were supposed to work with people who have coronavirus, identify anybody who came in close contact with them and warn those people to isolate themselves. States have dramatically increased the number of contact tracers. Andrew Becker of our member station KUER spoke with some of them in Utah.


DEBBIE SORENSEN: Hi, my name's Debbie. I'm a nurse with the Salt Lake County Health Department.

ANDREW BECKER, BYLINE: Debbie Sorensen is talking with a woman who recently tested positive for COVID-19. Her job is to find out where the woman's been and who she's been with.

SORENSEN: So do you live in an apartment or you live in a home? In a home, OK. How many people live with you?

BECKER: Sorensen, an infectious disease nurse, is one of the health department's 30 contact tracers. But now the county has 130 people doing that job. And these investigators are busy, averaging around five cases a day.

SORENSEN: Can you tell me what day your symptoms started, when you knew you were getting ill?

BECKER: Investigators race to reach out to a patient within 24 hours of a positive test. Then they trace back two days before any symptoms appeared. They use calendars, social media, anything that can jog a memory. They gather phone numbers, email and physical addresses to track down contacts. And that can take hours. Each case typically has 10 to 30 contacts. The woman talking to Sorensen has six. The health department's Tair Kiphibane says most people are willing to help, even if they feel awful and tired.

TAIR KIPHIBANE: I'm quite surprised by the positive responses we receive from people. Some said I've been waiting for you guys to call me. They're so ready to just unload the information that we are trying to gather.

BECKER: Co-investigators then interview those contacts to see if they have symptoms and need to be tested. Tracers also tell people whether they need to go into self-isolation or quarantine. And the county has repurposed six buildings for those who don't have a home or need shelter.

Salt Lake officials say 50% to 80% of those who come into contact with an infected person end up testing positive, depending if they work or live with them. Around 11% of infections here come from community spread. But as Utah reopens its economy, that number could grow. And Kiphibane says that makes her nervous.

KIPHIBANE: If we're going to maybe hit another big spike or something, then I would think that we might need more manpower.

BECKER: State officials say they're preparing for just that. Utah has increased its testing capacity to roughly 8,000 to 9,000 people a day, opening it to anyone who has come into contact with an infected person. Like county health departments, they're adding contact tracers. And in late March, Utah launched a program for state employees to help with the next step - active monitoring. Monitors follow up with contacts who potentially have been exposed to see if they have symptoms or have fallen ill. More than 1,000 state employees volunteered, and 150 or so have been trained so far.

DIANA MONAGO: My name is Diana. I'm calling from the Utah Department of Health.

BECKER: Diana Monago jumped at the chance to help. Her main job is with the state department of public safety. But today, she's calling a 51-year-old man who's ending his 14-day monitoring period.

MONAGO: So have you experienced any of the symptoms, as far as fevers, coughing or maybe difficulty breathing? No, you've been good. Awesome.

BECKER: The man is cleared to end his quarantine just as Utah has started to lift restrictions on social distancing. In the meantime, officials are watching to see whether they'll have to surge their army of contact tracers.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Becker in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "THE DARK") 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.