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Contact tracers can't do it by themselves

Besides wearing masks in public, social distancing and hand-washing, the most potent weapons against the spread of the novel coronavirus are testing and contact tracing. Jackson County must step up its game, state and federal governments should help, and local residents must do their part as well.

A story in Saturday’s Mail Tribune detailed the challenges facing county public health staff.

The Oregon Health Authority recommends counties reach out to 95% of new reported cases of COVID-19 within 24 hours of a positive test, but Jackson County is reaching only 45% that quickly.

That’s important because it notifies people who may have been exposed to an infected person, allowing them to start quarantining and getting tested. The faster that happens, the less chance of people spreading the virus because they are infected and do not know it.

As soon as the county is notified of a positive test — the timing varies depending on the test and where it was sent — a case investigator contacts the infected person to try to pin down where they might have contracted it and to compile a list of every person they came into contact with in the 48 hours before they showed symptoms or, if they are asymptomatic, 48 hours before they tested positive.

That list is then given to a contact tracer, who reaches out to everyone on the list to advise them about starting a quarantine and getting their own test.

Obviously, the faster all this happens, the more effective it is in preventing infected people from unwittingly walking around sharing the virus with even more people. The problem is, the county does not have enough tracers to keep up with the rising number of cases.

The county topped 500 total cases Thursday, when 15 new cases were reported. And the spread is accelerating.

County officials say tracers have been monitoring 100 to 300 people every day who have had contact with an infected person. But there are only 11 tracers and eight investigators. The county is working on recruiting and hiring more tracers, but training takes eight days.

That’s why it’s vital that state officials step up and provide coronavirus relief funds to help the county pay for and train more tracers. Congress should be sending more aid to increase testing capacity and speed, too, but partisan bickering has stalled work on a new relief package.

Meanwhile, Jackson County residents must do their part, too. That means wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing and washing hands frequently. Slowing the spread by complying with these restrictions means case investigators and contact tracers won’t get overwhelmed trying to keep up rising caseloads.

Health officials can’t fight this battle by themselves, and shouldn’t be expected to. We will cope with this pandemic successfully only if we all work together.

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