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Has coronavirus surge impacted contact tracing efforts?

HOUSTON – As the cases of coronavirus surge, so does the challenge of identifying the source of infection.

In the initial chapters of the pandemic, there was much written and learned about contact tracing. A practice that was smoother months ago, but a tall order now.

“So it’s incredibly challenging the huge numbers it’s incredibly challenging,” said Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department during a news conference at City Hall.

On Monday, the city announced another large number of positive cases logged.

Persse’s response to the announcement, “Today the Houston Health Department got faced with 1,544 new cases where we have got to reach out and find these people and have a conversation with them and we are racing against the clock.”

Identifying the source of a case today is much different in Houston compared to the start of the pandemic. Persse said this is the case, especially for those communicating with the city’s health department digitally.

“We are immediately sending them notice of their test result and asking them to respond back to us with some information because particularly the younger group, they are far more comfortable communicating that way,” he said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner understands the challenge of numbers rising. As he simply puts it, “It’s much easier when you are applying contact tracing when you have 300 cases, it’s far more difficult when you are getting 1,500,” Turner said

The bottom line for the Mayor?

“It’s like we’re chasing but we’re not in front,” he said.

Channel 2 Investigates spoke with State Rep. Tom Oliverson on Monday about contact tracing and it’s relevance with significantly higher case numbers.

“I think contact tracing is still very relevant especially where you have discreet outbreaks in sort of a more closed environment,” Oliverson said.

Oliverson points to nursing homes, camps, organized team practices and indoor environments as examples where contact tracing now works best. However, if outside those kinds of areas contact tracing doesn’t have the same impact.

“I do think that as the virus is more endemic in a community setting it’s probably less helpful for the community at large,” Oliverson said.

For Persse, another key factor is that the tracing also is a race against time from the next person being infected with the virus.