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As COVID-19 Spreads Across South Florida, Pressure Builds to Boost Contact Tracing

Lynne Sladky
AP Photo

Contact tracing is like detective work that helps contain COVID-19. When someone tests positive, a contact tracer starts an investigation to find out who was within close distance of this new case. Those people should self isolate.

Counties depend on the state's Department of Health for contact tracing, but some want to do more at the local level. Broward County has recently added 150 of its own contact tracers.

Broward County Mayor Dale Holness says as positive cases grow, "we'll definitely look to see whether or not we can invest more money into getting additional tracers. It's a very important part of the process of stopping the spread of this pandemic."

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said she wants her county to add its own tracers, too, rather than depending only on the state."It's taken us almost four months to move this forward, during which time the disease has been spreading rampantly throughout the county," she told WLRN. "So the current tracing program that is recommended by national health experts, is about 30 people per 100,000 population, which would bring us to almost 1000 in Miami Dade County. And we've been here obviously, since March, well aware of this COVID epidemic, and it's taken a very long time for the state to really put into place a contact tracing program." According to Miami-Dade County, the hold up is waiting on Tallahassee to move forward, but no other details have been given. "We're working closely with the state and with the county to be able to identify additional contact tracers to augment the support that we have at the local level," said Yesenia Villalta, the state health department administrator in Miami-Dade. "So definitely, that is something that we're looking at, obviously, our epidemiology, folks within the Department of Health continue to reach out and contact trace and investigate all of our cases that are coming in." The Florida DOH department wrote to WLRN in an email that it has 500 full-time epidemiologists and 359 additional epidemiologists as temporary staff doing contact tracing work. More than 1,600 individuals, including students, epidemiologists and other staff from across the department, are involved in contact tracing positive cases of COVID-19."The Florida Department of Health has also engaged with MAXIMUS, a widely recognized company with previous experience in supporting governmental agencies, to hire an additional 400 contact tracers and 200 disease investigators," wrote the department. Marta Lopez, a professor at Miami Dade College, teaches contact tracing courses there. She hopes that MAXIMUS will seek South Floridians to do the work, and not just hire people remotely in other states. "We would need contact tracers that also speak Spanish and they are able to communicate better with the people and therefore gather more of the very critical information that we need," Lopez said.If the state needs locals, Lopez said, she knows plenty of students eager for work.

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Verónica Zaragovia