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Slow COVID-19 test results create new challenges for FL contact tracing efforts

DeSantis: “The turn around time is just not what we want it to be.”
Slow COVID-19 test results create new challenges for FL contact tracing efforts
Posted at 7:38 PM, Jul 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 11:09:46-04

Contact tracing efforts in Florida are facing yet another challenge. Coronavirus test results are slow to trickle in, leaving potential spreaders out and in public for days -- sometimes up to a week or more -- before they get their results.

The problem is especially concerning if the person is asymptomatic.

On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis acknowledged that test results need to come in faster.

“The turn around time is just not what we want it to be,” he said during a press conference from Miami.

On July 1, Dwayne Bennet got a COVID-19 test after learning he might have been exposed to the virus at work.

“I started getting a dry cough and started feeling a little feverish,” he explained.

It took 10 days for Bennett to learn he was positive. He said he never got a phone call from the lab where he was tested. Instead, he learned his results after setting up a patient portal online.

“To this day, I haven’t gotten a phone call,” he said.

While it’s only been three days since he learned he’s positive, he has not received a call from a contact tracer and he’s not expecting one anytime soon.

“I don’t expect to, because the reality is, I haven’t even gotten a call for my results. Obviously, it seems like the system is backed up,” he said.

Bennett is also concerned by the time he is contacted, he won’t be able to offer as much detail since he’s nearing two weeks since his exposure and his test.

“If I’m two to three weeks out from my symptoms and then I'm getting a phone call two to three weeks later, I might have forgotten some important information,” he said.

Dr. Jacqueline Evans is an Associate Professor at Florida International University. She said lapses in time make successful contact tracing much more difficult.

“It’s problematic on two levels. One, it limits your ability to reach people before they infect others. In addition, from a memory standpoint, it’s one thing to try and remember what you did four days ago but it’s another to try and remember what you did 10 to 12 days ago, that’s a really difficult memory task,” she explained.

Evans is part of a new research study examining how contact tracers can be more effective and efficient if tracers use more cognitive interview skills to jog a person’s memory. The technique is similar to how criminal interviews are conducted.

“We know it works in that world and we want to take it and apply it to this contact tracing context,” she said. FIU hopes to release results from the study in the fall.

According to a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health, the state now has just over 2000 tracers working to trace every positive case of COVID-19. Roughly 600 of those tracers are employed by Maximus Inc, an independent government contractor recently hired by Florida to help expand efforts. The original contract for $6.2 million was recently extended for a year. According to the state’s contract database, Maximus is being paid more than $27 million for contact services to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

While the state has yet to provide details on how many cases have been traced and a copy of the scope of work with Maximus, a state spokesperson explained tracers hired by Maximus to help track cases may not actually be doing the work from Florida.

“Florida residents are preferred, as is familiarity with Florida’s geography,” spokesperson Alberto Moscoso wrote in an email.

Arlene Preis is an operating room nurse in Boca Raton. She recently took an online course on contact tracing through John Hopkins University and has been trying to get a job as a tracer in Florida.

“It makes sense to have someone in your area doing the contact tracing but I can see it be done from somewhere else too,” she said.

Either way, she’s ready to work.

“We’re ready to work, put us to work,” she said.

With the number of positive cases reported still hitting records in Florida, keeping up with caseload remains a challenge for contact tracers and with more people waiting up to a week or more for their results, the challenge is only getting tougher.