As coronavirus cases surged, Texas’ contact tracing workforce shrunk

A Kroger pharmacist explains how to administer the self-swab test at a COVID-19 testing site in the Fifth Ward in Houston on June 27, 2020.      Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
A Kroger pharmacist explains how to administer the self-swab test at a COVID-19 testing site in the Fifth Ward in Houston on June 27, 2020. Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

As Texas becomes a national hotspot for the new coronavirus, the state is still falling short on the governor’s months-old goal to employ up to 4,000 contact tracers — and the number of virus detectives dropped recently when the state health agency reassigned hundreds of state workers.

Earlier this month, 400 Texas Department of State Health Services employees who had been temporarily assigned to contact tracing were directed to other roles, including other COVID-19 response jobs, because there were sufficient personnel to track all the cases they were covering, spokesperson Lara Anton said.

Now, about 2,800 contact tracers are at work in Texas, even as the state has routinely reported more than 5,000 new COVID-19 cases each day. In early June, the state’s contact tracing workforce numbered about 2,900, and it reached almost 3,200 later in the month before dropping again.

Anton said the agency still has “enough tracers at the state level to meet our workload, and both we and local health departments continue to add staff.”

In the parts of the state it is covering, she said, DSHS has enough workers to call every person who has a positive test result, as well as their contacts. The agency is also capable of providing “surge capacity” for the many local health departments that are handling the process themselves, Anton said, and the workforce can scale up as needed.

But experts say that a state with 29 million people where cases are climbing at an alarming rate needs as big a workforce as it can muster.

“If you don’t have enough people out there doing [contact tracing], it’s difficult to stay on top of it. It’s kind of like the dam’s being broken open,” said Rodney Rohde, a virologist and epidemiologist at Texas State University.

Even the 4,000 goal, he said, seemed too small in the face of the state’s current outbreak. “It seems to me, with the current case rate, you would want as many as you could possibly get…. It seems like common sense.”