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State to relinquish contact tracing to local health agencies

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Radoslav Zilinsky
Getty Images
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

State health officials will stop taking on new cases for contact tracing COVID-19 next week.

The state is handing over that responsibility to local health departments.

The State — or the Community Tracing Collaborative as it's called — has made over 2 and half-million calls since forming in April of 2020.

They had over 1 million cases and contacts over that nearly 2-year period.

Many health agents, especially locally, have not relied much on the state collaborative. In Falmouth, for instance, health agent Scott McGann says they mostly only worked with the state collaborative following the worst surge to hit the area, after the last holiday season.

Falmouth, like most towns on the Cape, contracted with the Visiting Nurse Association, or VNA. Some towns worked with the county for contact tracing. And Sandwich and Barnstable — they have their own public health nurse and they did contact tracing in house.

With the state announcing an end to the collaborative, they also announced they would distribute about $20 million dollars to local health boards.

The Barnstable County health department is getting $500,000 over two years.

That’s going to allow them to hire three new staffers — including a full-time epidemiologist.

The county has been working with Yarmouth and Provincetown on contact tracing, but they also began working with Harwich, Dennis, Wellfleet and Mashpee.

County health nurse Deirdre Arvidson says that once town accountants find out that they are not charging a fee, she thinks other towns are going to sign on as well.

Arvidson says that — at least for the Cape — they should actually be better prepared for contact tracing than the state.

They know the region better, they know the dynamics.

“We’re a little more personable and a little easier to reach for people," the county public health nurse said. "And people appreciate that. They really do."

Also, the state will likely require less for contact tracers, compared to early in the pandemic.

Originally, contact tracers would make an initial call to see how a patient was doing, but then also some follow up calls in days and weeks afterward.

Now, local health agents say the state has talked about simplifying that down to just that initial phone call, rather than frequent follow up calls.

They also say that this could signify that the state is leading closer to declaring this an endemic, rather than a pandemic. Endemic meaning that it’s still going to be with us for a long time, but we won’t have this fear of overloading our hospitals the way we did early the pandemic.

The county health nurse — Deirdre Arvidson — says that while there may be more cases over the holidays, hospitals — at least locally — likely won’t be overloaded with COVID patients.

That’s because the vaccine has radically reduced the seriousness of the illness.

And with that, contract tracing might still be done for COVID-19, but it likely won’t have the same intensity as the early days of the pandemic.

“Just like flu is, or pneumonia, or like any other infectious, disease," Arvidson told CAI. "It’ll still be reportable, but at some point, we won't need to be calling every single person. And we're getting there."

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.