I-Team: Employees say SNHD contact tracing program a miserable failure

I-Team

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have been dropping nationally, but some health experts predict the worst weeks of the virus might still be ahead.

In Nevada, as elsewhere, one of the key tools in trying to control the spread has been contact tracing, where those confirmed to have COVID are contacted by health officials.

Employees who have worked inside the local program say it is a miserable failure.

Thousands of eligible Nevadans have struggled to get appointments for a COVID vaccination, let alone get a second shot. If you’re wondering why the system is so messed up, the seeds may have been planted 11 months ago when the health district struggled to implement basic plans, including a program for contact tracing.

“There’s been so many delays where, by the time you reach people that are positive, it’s already too late,” said “John,” an SNHD whistleblower. “They’re already well again, and we can’t even begin to imagine how far it’s spread to other people.”

Until a few months ago, John worked for the health district as a contact tracer. Each day, he was assigned a file of 10-20 cases, people who tested positive for COVID. It was his job to contact the infected person and identify who else might have been infected.

In practice, he says, tracers were never able to finish their daily list. The delays between the time people were tested and when they were informed of the results grew from days to weeks to a month or more.

“Sometimes, we had no idea that the person has already died,” John shared. When we asked about the families’ reactions, he said, “It’s been a mix of anger, sad, upset, looking for someone to blame.”

By September, John says the backlog for contact tracers was 15,000 infected people who hadn’t been contacted.

Then it grew to 25,000.

“James” is another former health district employee who confirmed the size of the backlog and the chaos within the district.

“It’s just a disaster,” revealed the second SNHD whistleblower. “It started from the beginning, where there just wasn’t ever enough contact tracers. And once there’s not enough contact tracers, then it just gets more and more behind, and then it just becomes useless. Contacting people that showed positive a month ago, it doesn’t do anything.”

Although contact tracing has worked well in other counties, it’s been a failure across much of the U.S., in part because Americans find it intrusive, believe the virus is a hoax or simply don’t answer the phone.

Dr. Arturo Mehretu, an epidemiologist, says one reason the local health district hasn’t stood out as a miserable failure is because so many other districts have done poorly, as well.

“But you know, it’s a good thing for the health district the whole nation, it’s not, you know, doing well,” he said. “And that’s maybe the only thing they can use as an excuse.”

Mehretu spent almost ten years with the health district and specialized in contact tracing, specifically for HIV cases. It works, he says, but not as implemented for COVID.

Many of the senior managers were hired or promoted by former Chief Joe Iser not for their expertise or training, he says, but for their loyalty to Iser. Mehretu says he discovered the district making inflated claims to the state about the success of its contact tracing.

After he reported it to the state, he was fired.

“Because they were claiming 15-20% of the cases were being found or identified through contact tracing, and that was an absolute lie,” said Mehretu.

The epidemiologist has previous experience as a whistleblower at the health district and has spoken out about senior managers lacking the most basic credentials for dealing with infectious diseases.

The I-Team sought an interview with the health district, but SNHD declined. A spokesperson did answer several questions we submitted in writing, saying the contact tracing programs have been able to “adequately respond to COVID, except during the summer surge of cases.”

SNHD’s answers to the I-Team’s questions are as followed:

  1. How many SNHD employees work on contact tracing now? The Southern Nevada Health District maintains an evolving team of in-house contact tracers and the number of individuals working as contact tracers/disease investigators changes on a daily basis, dependent upon the number of cases reported. Currently, there are approximately 260 individuals involved that includes Health District staff and contracted staff.
  1. How many outside or third-party people are working on SNHD’s behalf on contact tracing? In addition to Health District staff, outside entities have been contracted to provide contact tracing/disease investigation services to assist with notifications and ensure people with positive test results are able to self-quarantine and monitor their health appropriately.
  1. What is the current backlog in contact tracing cases. if any? The number of incoming positive case reports changes daily. All positive lab reports received by the Health District are immediately notified with a text or email, as long as the report has complete information. People who test positive are asked to submit information about their close contacts as part of contact tracing efforts. Information about the case is kept confidential.
  1. How long does it take between when a COVID diagnosis is made for SNHD to make contact with the person who tests positive? (In general): Anyone with a positive test result reported to the Health District is notified via text message or email immediately upon receipt of the positive test result. If staff capacity allows, a Health District disease investigator will follow up with that individual. The ability of a Health District staff member to contact a person who has tested positive is dependent upon the case volume at any given time.
  1. How would SNHD characterize the success of its contact tracing efforts? The Southern Nevada Health District’s contact tracing efforts have been able to adequately respond to the pandemic except during the peak of last summer’s surge, and the most recent surge even though we are continually updating procedures as needed, and consistent with federal and State guidance. The Health District wants to remind members of the public that if they do receive a text message from the Health District as part of a contact investigation to respond to the message and to provide as much information as they can. Information provided is confidential and protected.
  1. What person within SNHD oversees the contact tracing program? The Southern Nevada Health District’s Office of Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance manages the contact tracing/disease surveillance program as part of the agency’ COVID-19 response under the supervision of a contact tracing manager.

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