Sam Houston State, Texas State University System to hire contact tracers as experts warn of a fall COVID-19 surge

Sam Houston State University and the Texas State University System are planning to hire 200 contact tracers as experts warn of a potential fall COVID-19 surge.  (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)
Sam Houston State University and the Texas State University System are planning to hire 200 contact tracers as experts warn of a potential fall COVID-19 surge. (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

HOUSTON – Sam Houston State University and the Texas State University System are aiming to hire approximately 200 COVID-19 contact tracers statewide ahead of an expected resurgence of the novel coronavirus this fall.

As colleges and universities emerge as potential hot spots for the virus, SHSU hopes to recruit students and those in surrounding communities for the part-time, remote positions to track COVID-19 cases across Texas.

Chad Hargrave, associate vice president of SHSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, said the university system joined with state health officials to recruit a large workforce and leverage the system’s geographic reach.

Experts say contact tracing — the often arduous process of cataloging an infected patient’s every move to determine who else may have been exposed to the virus — is vital to mitigating spread and safely reopening businesses.

Gov. Greg Abbott in April set a goal of employing 4,000 contact tracers by June 1 as part of his phased reopening plan. But the state has consistently struggled to meet that mark. That month, the DSHS shrunk its contact tracing workforce even as cases of COVID-19 surged, hospitals in some parts of the state neared capacity and Abbott ordered bars to again close.

Local health departments described a frenzied effort to hire enough contact tracers to meet the need. But long lines and slow turnaround for COVID-19 tests — which sometimes took weeks to get results — meant an infected person could potentially expose more people before contact tracers could begin their work.

Abbott’s goal fell far short of estimates by outside groups that analyzed Texas' needs. In late April, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials estimated that Texas would need almost 9,000 contact tracers. A George Washington University model puts that number at more than 30,000, based on the number of cases in the past 14 days.

Texas currently has more than 3,500 contact tracers, according to DSHS spokesperson Chris Van Deusen. The state partnered with the Texas State University System to “provide additional flexibility as the pandemic continues,” he said.