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Contact tracing lags in Jackson County

Mara Owens was careful about COVID-19.

She frequently washed her hands, always wore a mask, and during her limited shopping outings, the 69-year-old Ashland resident stocked up on cleaning supplies such as Purell and Lysol wipes.

When she learned a Rite Aid in Phoenix was offering drive-thru testing, Owens scheduled an appointment July 16 for the first opening they had. She received a positive test result via email on July 25.

She said this explained the acute body aches and fatigue she felt later, though she never had a fever or other symptoms such as sore throat or a cough.

But according to Owens, Jackson County Public Health did not reach out to trace her contacts until Aug. 2, more than a week later. She said the person on the phone apologized for the late call.

“They said they were terribly behind,” Owens recalled.

The growing number of COVID-19 cases in Jackson County has strained contact tracers working to quickly track everyone who has tested positive, according to Jackson Baures, the county’s public health division manager.

The Oregon Health Authority recommends counties follow up with 95% of reported cases within 24 hours of being notified of a positive test. According to OHA, Jackson County is reaching only 45% of cases within that time frame.

Baures said tracers and case investigators started falling behind in the past few weeks as case numbers escalated.

“It took nearly four months into the pandemic for Jackson County to hit 100 cases,” Baures said at the end of July. “It took three weeks to reach 200 cases and just 11 days to reach 300 cases.” Jackson County hit 514 cases Thursday.

According to Baures, tracers have recently been monitoring on a daily basis between 100 and 300 active contacts — those who were in contact with a person who tested positive.

“I want to apologize to everyone who is waiting for a call,” he said, adding that the county is working to recruit more tracers and case investigators. The county currently has 11 contact tracers and eight case investigators, according to OHA.

A case investigator is assigned to call people who test positive for COVID-19 after the county is notified. The time it takes to notify the county of a positive case can depend on the kind of test taken and where samples were sent, according to Baures.

Case investigators try to determine where the person may have contracted the virus and compile a list of all the people that person was in contact with 48 hours before they started showing symptoms or, if they were asymptomatic, 48 hours before they tested positive.

That list is sent to a contact tracer, who reaches out to all the contacts and then advises them on starting a quarantine and getting tested.

Baures said tracing was initially done by investigators, but as cases increased, it became more efficient to have investigators gather and send contact information to tracers so they could reach more people faster.

“The sooner we reach people, the better,” he said.

Baures said the county is recruiting more tracers to help manage the case load. Training tracers can take eight days.

In the meantime, people can do their part and cooperate with social distancing and quarantine guidelines, said Baures.

Because of the potential for more than a day’s wait before receiving test results, Baures said it’s critical people make sure to limit their contacts, which could shorten the list of names collected by a case investigator.

“If you’re going to get tested, isolate yourself afterward,” Baures said.

Correction: Mara Owens was asymptomatic when she was tested at the Phoenix Rite Aid.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMara Owens waters plants on her back patio of her Ashland home.