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Marion County contact tracing team focuses on K-12 cases

The county's contact tracing team has been working on as many as 600 cases a week, with a fraction of the staff from the start of the pandemic.

INDIANAPOLIS — Since the summer of 2020, a team of contact tracers in Marion County has worked to identify COVID clusters.  

“It is hard to keep up. I don’t think any contact tracing team in the country is keeping up right now,” said Shandy Dearth, director of the Center for Public Health Practice at the Fairbanks School of Public Health.  

Dearth oversees the contract tracing team through the Fairbanks School of Public Health

She said cases can vary from 200 to 600 a week. Plus, her team has shrunk since the start of the pandemic. 

“At the height of this, we had 200 people. We are down to 55 right now, but obviously, our case count is very high, so we really had to prioritize what cases we go after first,” she said.  

RELATED: Kids' low COVID-19 vaccination rates called a 'gut punch'

Marion County contact tracers are now focusing on the cases that impact local schools. That includes any case involving someone 20 or younger, especially those ages 5 to 17 that are enrolled in an Indianapolis school.  

“A key piece of information we are collecting right now is what school the child attends,” Dearth said.  

That way, county health leaders can identify any outbreaks that might need to be addressed.

“That’s when Dr. [Virginia] Caine and her team can go in and have those conversations about whether they need to go remote or maybe some grades or classrooms. We are really trying to keep the schools open as much as possible,” Dearth said.  

How contact tracing works

When someone tests positive, the result goes to the Indiana Department of Health and is put in a statewide database that local health departments can access. Every day contact tracers look at the cases and assign which ones need to be investigated.  

According to the CDC, close contacts include those who were within six feet of the infected individual for at least 15 minutes. The tracking period begins after an individual has been exposed to an infected individual. 

“We immediately by 9 a.m. start calling cases. We have learned, don’t call too early and don’t call too late in the day, but we call those cases to do the case investigation and also to collect any close contact information,” Dearth said. 

Since not every case is investigated, Dearth encourages Hoosiers to reach out themselves to close contacts, especially during this latest surge.  

“It is more about collecting information to find those clusters. We realize we are not going to contact trace our way out of this. We really need vaccinations and mask use in place,” Dearth said.  

RELATED: CDC isolation guidance: Do you need a negative test to return to normal?

For now, the team is trying to get through this school year. After that, they will reassess what is needed.  

“Eventually COVID is going to become endemic. So, I think we will start to move surveillance more towards what we do with flu surveillance on a regular basis. It’s a lot more automated work and we don’t have these individual case investigations going on for every case,” Dearth said.  

The Marion County contact tracing team can be reached at COVIDct@iupui.edu