Georgia public health investigators are reaching a smaller share of people who may be infected as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state rises, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The newspaper finds that contact tracers interviewed 37% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 between June 23 and July 8, down from 60% between May 15 and June 22.
That's bad news as confirmed virus cases continue to rise rapidly in Georgia. The number topped 120,000 on Monday, with increases averaging more than 3,300 a day over the past week. That's the most rapid increase since the respiratory illness arrived in Georgia. Deaths rose to 3,026 on Monday, the fourth day in a row that fatalities have increased. A total of 2,600 people were in the hospital with the virus Monday, another record.
The virus continues to have impacts across the state, with Richmond County schools giving up on long-delayed plans for high school graduation ceremonies and instead setting drive-through diploma pickups in Augusta. North Point Community Church, an Atlanta-area megachurch, announced it would not resume in-person services this year at its six campuses. After a clerk tested positive, the main court clerk’s office in Gwinnett County closed for two weeks.
With the number of coronavirus infections soaring in Georgia, it may be impossible to keep up, said Dr. Harry Heiman, a public health professor at Georgia State University.
“When there's this degree of community spread going on, there's no way to execute a containment strategy,” Heiman said.
Georgia was reporting 120,569 infections and 3,026 COVID-19 deaths as of Monday afternoon, according the state Department of Public Health. More than 2,500 people were in the hospital on Sunday.
Bartow County has surpassed 1,000 total cases since the outbreak began, with 164 hospitalizations and 44 total deaths.
Contact tracers try to interview people infected with the respiratory illness and ask them who they have been in close contact with. The investigators then try to reach those close contacts to warn them to self-quarantine or seek testing. The idea is to squelch the chain of infection to keep cases from spreading.
The state Department of Public Health says it has 1,225 contact tracers as of July 1, exceeding a 1,000-person goal set earlier by Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey.
“As the cases of COVID-19 increase daily by the thousands, it becomes harder and harder to keep up with contact tracing," Toomey said in a statement. “Our work is further hampered by the fact that it's taking longer to get test results from commercial labs that are recently backed up due to the volume of testing. By the time we get test results, many contacts are already outside the risk period.”
State officials have also voiced concerns that people aren't answering calls from contact tracers, because they don't know who's calling or because some people are posing as contact tracers to try to steal personal information.
“In some cases, the contacts actually hang up the phone on the contact tracers when they try to identify themselves,” said Dr. Otto J. Ike, chief epidemiologist for the DeKalb County Board of Health.
Public health officials emphasize they don't collect Social Security numbers, immigration status or Bluetooth data. But tracers sometimes have to call repeatedly or send letters. Public health workers in Georgia have avoided in-person visits, a method used to trace contacts for other diseases. Officials have also avoided legal threats, although people are legally obligated to cooperate.
Toomey said authorities reserve the right to issue subpoenas or citations, but would like to avoid those steps.
One case where people didn't immediately cooperate involved an outbreak among recent graduates of The Lovett School, when some parents and the school didn't immediately respond to inquiries.
“We lost a lot of time with the runaround,” said Dr. Lynn Paxton of the Fulton County Board of Health.