State Has 250 Contact Tracers as Stay-at-Home Is Set to Expire in a Week

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As promised, Gov. John Bel Edwards devoted his May 8 press conference to taking a “deep dive” into what robust testing and contact tracing will look like to support the phased reopening of the state’s economy.

What he wouldn’t talk about, after being prodded by a reporter’s question, is whether the state’s numbers in three areas—hospitalizations, the number of people presenting to healthcare facilities with COVID-like symptoms and number of new cases—appear to, over 14 days, meet the criteria to ease Louisiana’s strict stay-at-home at the end of next week. Gov. Edwards says he and others have been looking at the data, but stopped stop short of speculating on where it is leaning or what decision he will make on May 11.

“I am not going to announce it today. I am going to announce it Monday,” he said.

Louisiana’s current stay-at-home order expires on Friday, May 15. And while the Governor would not talk about if the current data signal whether the state can begin a phased reopening, perhaps the numbers speak for themselves. Between Friday, April 25 and Friday, May 8, Louisiana has seen 4,715 new cases of COVID-19—an average just short of 337 new cases a day. The lowest one-day increase over the 14-day period came on came on May 3, when 200 new cases brought the state’s total to 29,340. The greatest increase in new cases came just two days earlier on May 1 when cases increased by 710 from the previous day, a dramatic hike Gov. Edwards attributed two new private testing labs reporting their results—some several weeks old—to the state for the first time.

With few exceptions from the day-to-day, hospitalizations and ventilator use has decreased across Louisiana.

For Friday, May 8, Louisiana reported a total of 30,855 COVID-19 cases, an increase of 203 from the previous day. Keeping with the trend, hospitalizations decreased from 1,465 to 1,359 between May 7 and May 8; and ventilator use dipped slightly from 187 to 185. There were also 19 news deaths reported on May 8.

“We are in a different and better place than we were two weeks ago,” Gov. Edwards said. “And we are in (much) better place than we were six or seven weeks ago.”

And for the most part, Gov. Edwards appeared guarded, but optimistic about the state’s progress, still noting that the even the numbers that are available do not tell provide a full picture of COVID-19’s presence in Louisiana.

“(The case count} never has reflected all of the people who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic who are still contagious, but aren’t getting tested,” Edwards said. “That’s one of the things that makes this particular virus so hard to get in front of.”

And while it is still unclear if Gov. Edwards will be announcing an ease in restrictions on Monday, contact tracing will be critical if he does.

Some 250 contact tracers have been hired, will undergo training next week and will be deployed at call centers by May 15, conducting case interviews with individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus to learn who they have come in contact with in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 throughout Louisiana.

In the past few weeks, the Governor said the state would need at least 700 contact tracers to handle the work. It is a number he said he came to after looking at the contact tracing program in Massachusetts—one that Louisiana’s program has been modeled after. And while the program is set to start with only 250 tracers, Dr. Alexander Billioux, assistant health secretary, said the 250 contact tracers will be able handle early stages of the effort, adding that the state already has roughly 70 contact tracers who have been at work since March mostly focusing on areas where the spread of the virus has not been as rapid or easier to identify such as clusters found in nursing homes.

Gov. Edwards says the state is still prepared to hire as many as 700 contact tracers, And Dr. Billioux insists more will be hired demand increases. To help put people across the state to work, Gov. Edwards said he has partnered with Louisiana Works, and other agencies, to source potential candidates for the contact tracing jobs. Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a contact tracer can send an e-mail to contacttracing@la.gov. Interested candidates must have a high school diploma, be comfortble having phone conversations, possess computer/data entry skills and undergo intense training, Gov. Edwards said.

“We are going to get as many contact tracers as we need based on what we find when we start reaching out to folk,” Dr. Billioux said.

The job of contact tracers will be to call Louisianans diagnosed with COVID-19,  asking them the names and contact information if available of anyone they may have come in “close contact” with during the time period they were contagious.

For the purposes of contact tracing, Billioux says people who will be considered as having had “close contact” with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 if they are  household members, intimate partners, caregivers or have come within six feet of a someone diagnosed with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more.

After reviewing the cases with COVID-19 positive Louisianans, contact tracers will then reach out to those individuals with whom they came in “close contact”.

The information provided will be private. Individuals who have come in close contact with a someone diagnosed with COVID-19, will likely only be informed that they have been exposed to the virus and then instructed to self-quarantine.

The success of the program will rely on COVID positive individuals providing as much information as possible and on those they may have come in contact with following the proper protocol.

Billioux says the goal of contact tracing is to identify individuals “who shouldn’t be out there going to shops and facilities” as businesses begin to reopen across the state.

“If you are contacted by the contact tracers we really need people to take that seriously and adhere to quarantining and staying at home,” he said, adding that testing is also critical.

The Governor maintains that the goal is to test 200,000 Louisianans each month beginning in May. And Dr. Billioux says the state labs capacity has been expanded with a infusion of testing equipment and supplies.

But Edwards cautioned that testing and contact tracing are just part of the solution.

“If we had 300,000 tests per month and 2,000 contact tracers, that’s not enough,” Edwards said. “We all have a role to play. As restrictions are being eased and people start to travel more, you will still be safer at home, especially if those who have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable and those who live with more vulnerable individuals. There are still things that we will have to do, such as wearing masks, keeping six feet distance from others, and hand washing. This is a new normal, and we want people to prepare for that.”