Health officials assoc. says surge in health care workers needed to safely get back to normal

Reporter: Veronica Marshall
Published: Updated:
Medical workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). Cropped Photo: U.S. Army / Leia Tascarini / CC BY 2.0

Contact tracing is being hailed as a way for the country to start opening up again, but some medical groups say there’s a problem with that plan. Local health departments don’t have enough staff to do the job.

Experts say we need a surge in health care professionals to safely get back to normal.

Lori Tremmel Freeman is the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). She says health departments have lost 25 percent of their workforce since 2008, and now, it’s hurting their response to COVID-19.

Freeman said, “We would have been better prepared, we could have been better prepared, had we not lost all of those jobs.”

And the staff they do have are working around the clock.

“They’re tired,” she explained. “By the way, they’re working 18-20 hours a day. They’re exhausted.”

DOCUMENT: NACCHO Position Statement – “Building COVID-19 Contact Tracing Capacity in Health Departments to Support Reopening American Society Safely”

To help health departments respond, NACCHO calls for a massive expansion of professionals and trained volunteers.

The group says another 100,000 contact tracers are needed across the country, costing around $3.7 billion.

And NACCHO isn’t the only one talking about the need for more public health staff to respond to the crisis.

Professor of microbiology at Nova Southeastern University, Dr. Bindu Mayi, says the CDC is ramping up America’s capacity to do more contact tracing, “So they are going to need a substantial expansion of public health field workers.”

NACCHO’s plan also asks for $4.5 billion for annual public health funding, so next time a pandemic hits, we’re ready.

“This won’t be the last thing that happens to our country, unfortunately,” Freeman adds. “So we need to be ready at any given time for this to happen again so we can really stop the spread and stop the deaths.”

NACCHO says the country still needs more PPE for healthcare workers, and more testing.

What is contact tracing and why is it important?

People in close contact with someone who is infected with a virus, such as the Ebola virus, are at higher risk of becoming infected themselves, and of potentially further infecting others.

Closely watching these contacts after exposure to an infected person will help the contacts to get care and treatment, and will prevent further transmission of the virus.

This monitoring process is called contact tracing, which can be broken down into 3 basic steps:

Contact identification: Once someone is confirmed as infected with a virus, contacts are identified by asking about the person’s activities and the activities and roles of the people around them since onset of illness. Contacts can be anyone who has been in contact with an infected person: family members, work colleagues, friends, or health care providers.

Contact listing: All persons considered to have contact with the infected person should be listed as contacts. Efforts should be made to identify every listed contact and to inform them of their contact status, what it means, the actions that will follow, and the importance of receiving early care if they develop symptoms. Contacts should also be provided with information about prevention of the disease. In some cases, quarantine or isolation is required for high risk contacts, either at home, or in hospital.

Contact follow-up: Regular follow-up should be conducted with all contacts to monitor for symptoms and test for signs of infection.

*Source World Health Organization.

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