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Washoe County did not contact more than 4 in 10 infected with COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus and a screenshot of the Nevada COVID Trace app that warns others of possible...
The COVID-19 virus and a screenshot of the Nevada COVID Trace app that warns others of possible exposure.(Associated Press/KOLO)
Published: Feb. 28, 2021 at 3:34 PM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - More than four out of 10 people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Washoe County were not contacted directly by the Washoe County Health District.

This doesn’t mean they did not know they were infected. Those notifications come from hospitals or laboratories that conducted the testing.

The health district calls people as part of contact tracing to limit the spread of the disease.

Some people also use the COVID Trace app on their smartphones to let others know of possible exposure. The app uses Bluetooth to anonymously track others within Bluetooth range who also have the app installed on their smartphones. A person who tests positive enters a verification code provided by the health department and everyone else who has had the Bluetooth handshake within the last 14 days is warned of possible exposure.

But until recently, if the health department doesn’t contact an infected person, there is no verification code to activate the app and warn others who have been potentially exposed.

Responding to a request from KOLO 8 News Now, on Feb. 11, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services said there had been 574,078 downloads of the COVID Trace app. At that time, 239 people used the app to report they had been infected and 786 people were notified they had potentially been exposed to COVID-19.

On Feb. 22, Health and Human Services announced they implemented a test result notification system that uses text messages to notify people when they test positive, except for people in Clark County. It would also include verification codes to use in the COVID Trace app. The Southern Nevada Health District test results for people in Clark County are available through its portal, the state health department said.

Carson City Health and Human Services reported 85 percent of known infected people in the Carson City and Storey, Lyon and Douglas counties area had been contacted directly by CCHHS and notified they had tested positive.

The Southern Nevada Health District reported 90 percent of the people who tested positive are notified within 24 hours. It may take longer to reach them if the health district does not have accurate contact information.

But does the Southern Nevada Health District automatically provide a verification code for people to use the COVID Trace app? As of Sunday, a public information manager did not respond to a Feb. 18 request for information about that.

The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services was unable to provide any information about statewide notifications.

A nationally recognized expert on infectious diseases said it is common for health departments to be overwhelmed and to have to prioritize who they notify.

“In almost all states public health has been neglected for decades,” said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“When the pandemic occurred all health departments were under resourced and did not have the capacity to do contact tracing anywhere near the level required to keep pace with cases,” Adalja wrote in an email. “Underwater with a torrent of cases, it was not unusual for contact tracers to only reach a modest proportion of significant contacts of cases. This neglect of augmenting contact tracing resources happened time and again all over the country as COVID cases peaked.”

The solution is to adequately fund public health agencies so they can better deal with the next health emergency, he wrote.

As of Jan. 31, the Washoe County Health District interviewed 23,665 infectious people, spokesman Scott Oxarart said. There were 17,724 cases where they could not reach the people. About 2,000 were hospitalized and unable to speak with an investigator and some of those died, Oxarart said. Some did not have voicemail, or their voicemail were full.

“There were certainly scenarios where we didn’t have enough staff to keep up with the fall surge of COVID-19 cases,” Oxarart wrote in an email. “We also had staff who needed to quarantine and were unavailable.”

Oxarart noted on Oct. 1, the seven-day rolling average for new COVID-19 cases in Washoe County was 100 per day. It increased to 181.4 on Nov. 1 and by Dec. 1 was 391.9.

“On Nov. 1, the Health District made the decision to prioritize cases by risk level and only conducted disease investigations with health care workers, first responders, long term care facilities, skilled nursing facilities and school, which was a strategy many health departments were going to due to the massive increase in cases,” Oxarart wrote.

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