INDIANAPOLIS — As Indiana continues to face a record number of new COVID-19 cases, this week the Indiana State Department of Health revealed more troubling news.
Many Hoosiers diagnosed with coronavirus are refusing to answer questions that could help limit the further spread of the disease.
Contact tracing — the scientific process of reaching out to Hoosiers who have the virus to help identify the other people they may have accidentally infected — is one of Indiana’s most important weapons against COVID-19.
The state is spending more than $40 million on efforts to contact every infected resident as soon as their test results are shared with ISDH.
“Today we have 955 contact tracers working as part of our centralized contact tracing operation and another 371 in local health departments,” ISDH Chief Medical Officer Lindsay Weaver said Wednesday afternoon.
Despite more than 1,000 contact tracers statewide, Weaver acknowledged many people who receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis aren't willing to answer any questions.
“The contract tracers also report that more people are refusing to complete the first contract tracing survey, which of course puts us all at greater risk of COVID and is a significant barrier in bringing our numbers back down,” she said.
Large numbers of COVID-positive residents failing to work with state contact tracers pose a big risk, according to public health officials contacted by 13News.
“Yeah, It is a problem,” said Dr. Andrea Janota, interim director at the Center for Public Health Practice at the IUPUI Fairbanks School of Public Health. “Contact tracing has been around a long time, and it's a really helpful public health tool. So when we don't have people who participate in contact tracing, it just allows more spread to happen — maybe by people who aren't aware they're sick. So, contact tracing allows us to intervene and stop the spread.”
The state health department told 13News its contracted contact tracers have sent more than 475,000 phone calls and 630,000 text messages to people who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Nearly 75 percent of our contact tracing efforts are successful,” said ISDH spokeswoman Megan Wade-Taxter. She did not clarify what "successful" means.
With more than 141,000 Hoosiers who've tested positive for COVID to date, a 75 percent success rate means there could be as many as 35,000 infected Hoosiers who have not shared information about other people they might have exposed.
“When we have full participation in contact tracing, we do our best work,” said Dr. Kara Cecil, assistant professor of public health at the University of Indianapolis. She said there could be a variety of factors that deter infected residents from taking part in the contact tracing process. One of those factors might be time. It can take 45 to 60 minutes to fully complete a contact tracing survey.
“It does take time, but all that investment really matters and it's so helpful,” Cecil explained. “It's important to look at those contact tracing efforts as something to improve your health, your family's health, and your neighbor's health and reduce the risk to those people.”
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Another impediment to contact tracing could be language barriers or fear by some infected Hoosiers that contact tracing will bring involvement from law enforcement.
“Contact tracers are here just as public health servants. We are just to talk to you about illnesses or prevent exposure to COVID and help identify resources, nothing else,” Janota told 13News. “It’s about letting you know you are not alone…and to check in and make sure you are doing OK, to make sure you understand the virus and how to protect others.”
ISDH said when people refuse to respond to its contact tracers, those cases are then referred to local health departments for follow up. In Marion County, contact tracers from IUPUI are currently engaged in a program to go door-to-door to help to reach people who have not responded to contact tracing.