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Contact tracing lags as Colorado COVID-19 cases spike

Jefferson County once called contacts within 24 hours of a positive test. A phone call may now take three days, if one is made at all.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colorado — Contact tracers can't keep up with the spike in COVID-19 cases in Colorado. They are now less likely to do a detailed retracing of steps and less likely to do it in a timely fashion.

“The requirement at the beginning was contact within 24 hours, which we were very much able to hit and it was a very thorough case investigation. We then had to scale back,” said Christine Billings, Jefferson County's emergency preparedness and response coordinator, who said they're now contacting people up to three days after they've tested positive.

If they can't get to you before then, you won't get a call, just an email or letter in the mail asking contacts to follow isolation instructions and get ahold of them to do additional tracing. Billings said they’ve had a “pretty good response rate” on that mail.

RELATED: How to help Colorado track the spread of COVID-19

But more infections can easily happen in three days. She said for every case, they get an average of two-and-a-half contacts that need to be informed –they're getting to about 25% of them.

Similar struggles have been reported in counties across the state.

El Paso County Public Health has a notice of lagging contact tracing on the front page of its website. The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment said, like Jefferson County, it’s prioritizing cases.

“You’ ree really not going to break that chain of transmission until you trace that those footsteps back. It's sort of like you got lost in the woods. And you need to find your way back,” said 9Health Medical Expert Dr. Payal Kohli, adding that retracing those crucial steps take manpower that counties don't have.

For example, Jefferson County has 20 case investigators with more than 300 new cases a day.

Plus, turnaround times for some tests are taking longer than what health officials would like.

“What I would caution people to do is not wait for that test result,” Kohli said. “If you're having symptoms and you're in the middle of a pandemic, you know, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might be a duck you need to call your friends or whoever you might have been exposed to and at least put them on guard.”

Another issue is the lack of participation. Billings said there are people who don't want to share information with the county health department. 

CDPHE said it is stepping in to assist counties with the contact tracing process, but even then the department can't get to everybody. It's urging Coloradans to signup for “Exposure Notifications,” a statewide warning system that alerts people who’ve come in contact with a person who tests positive.

If you've been exposed, you should quarantine for 14 days, even if you don't have symptoms.

RELATED: Polis extends mask mandate for 30 days as cases, hospitalizations increase

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