Daily infections in Utah are 10 times what contact tracers can handle

In this Tuesday, May 19, 2020, photo, health investigator Mackenzie Bray sits in her office at the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City. Bray normally works to track contacts for people with sexually transmitted diseases, but she was re-assigned during the coronavirus pandemic. She is now one of 130 people at this county health department assigned to track down COVID-19 cases in Utah's urban center around Salt Lake City. The investigators, many of them nurses, each juggle 30 to 40 cases that can include a total of several hundred people. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Some health departments across the Wasatch Front have stopped doing one of the most important defenses against spreading the coronavirus.

Contact tracing beyond an infected person has basically come to a halt, which can prove to be problematic when trying to slow surging infections.

“We are all feeling very burnt out, we've been working at this since it started,” says Nicole Roberts, the Utah Department of Health contact tracing program manager.

Roberts says for each positive case there is on average three contacts that could have been exposed that need to be notified by a tracer.

With 4,588 reported new infections, tracers would have had to contact more than 13,700 people on Friday alone.

“That’s not doable, not currently. We just do not have the capacity to do that,” Roberts says.

The state health department uses 250 contact tracers a day from a pool of about 500 people, and some tracers work part time. Each phone call differs, but can last anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour.

Roberts says each county health department employs their own contact tracers but adds all health departments along the Wasatch Front have scaled back extended tracing, and some have had to stop altogether.

“We don't have the capacity to reach everyone. It can be pretty disheartening when people just don't listen, and they don't seem to really care about the efforts that you're putting in,” Roberts says.

Which means they can only reach the people they already know have COVID-19, which doesn't do much to stop the spread.

For tracing to be fully effective, cases would need to be between 300 and 400 a day, and Utah is registering daily numbers 10 times that.

Roberts says the public has to help in this effort,

We're doing the best that we can in reaching out to everyone, but especially in these high-populated areas, you have to start prioritizing isolating and quarantining."

Read more: Here's a look at the exhaustive work of tracing COVID outbreaks in Utah schools