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Nevada to ramp up COVID-19 contact tracing


Nevada is preparing to accelerate its COVID-19 contact tracing efforts and will hire some 250 workers. The announcement was made June 3 by Caleb Cage, the State of Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, during a virtual press conference to provide an update on Nevada’s plan for comprehensive COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and funding as part of Governor Steve Sisolak’s Nevada United: Roadmap to Recovery.

Caleb Cage
Caleb Cage

Across the nation, according to NPR, the states and Washington D.C. plan to hire at least some 66,000 workers to help with contact tracing efforts.

For those who might not be in the know, contract tracing refers to a process undertaken by public health officials to isolate individuals with certain diseases and follow up with any other people with whom they may have recently interacted.

The announcement in Nevada came shortly after state legislators approved millions of dollars in federal funds dedicated to the virus response.

On Monday, members of the Nevada Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee approved more than $118.5 million—including $96 million for contact tracing and expanded laboratory testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—to help fund the response to COVID-19.

After the legislative decision, Sisolak announced a statewide COVID-19 community testing and outbreak management strategy. As a part of it, Nevada will be contracting with two vendors—Deloitte and Salesforce—that, according to the a statement from the governor’s office, will work to “modernize and streamline case investigation and contact tracing with increased staffing to quickly identify and notify individuals who may have been close contacts to a person with COVID-19.”

Funds for the contact tracing program will come from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These funds will also help pay for personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers testing people for the coronavirus and for antibody collection.

The committee also approved other federal grants related to COVID-19 on Monday, including:

  • $8.8 million through three categories of federal sub-grants to support services for the elderly—to include supportive services, family caregivers and nutrition
  • $8.1 million in funds to assist with supplemental payments for low-income households whose home energy use has increased during the pandemic
  • $4.6 million in Department of Education funds for emergency relief to charter schools
  • $606,000 designated for “crisis intervention services, mental and substance use disorder treatment and support for kids impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic”
  • nearly $500,000 to support federal Aging and Disability Resources Centers funds for “outreach and public education, person-centered counseling and streamlined eligibility  determinations to best fit individual needs during the COVID-19 pandemic”

Next Steps: Testing

For his June 3 press conference, Cage brought in Dr. Mark Pandori and Julia Peek. Pandori is an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UNR, the director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory and the newly appointed Nevada Chief of Testing for COVID-19.  Peek is a deputy administrator for the state’s Division of Public and Behavioral Health and Community Health Services.

Together, the three addressed questions about Nevada’s next steps.

“We’re here to talk about our plan, which is comprised of … three main efforts,” Cage said. “They are community-based testing, building and maintaining statewide laboratory capacity and supporting Nevada’s communities through contact tracing.”

Pandori explained the importance of testing.

“Outside of social distancing, the only real weapon—or shield, if you like—here in Nevada and all over the world is testing,” he said. “Testing provides us with three main factors here as we defend ourselves in the pandemic. Number one, testing provides us with the medical information that we need to deal with people who are sick and try to get them better. The other thing that testing does is tell us how many people are sick and where they are so that we can make strategic decisions at the public health level. 

“But, now, as we start to go through the phases of reopening, testing also plays role. It’s a tool that provides us information about our choices. So, now, as we move forward, and we employ different strategies or we make decisions about how we reopen—what testing is doing, is it’s going to feed back to us the intelligence we need to know about whether we’re making good decisions for Nevadans.”

Washoe County Health District conducts drive-through testing for COVID-19 at the Reno-Livestock Events Center. Image: Lucia Starbuck

Nevada has been testing people for COVID-19 since mid-February, but Pandori said testing will need to be increased in the weeks to come.

“In the coming weeks, as we reopen, we actually have to expect even more,” he said. “We’re going to work every day to increase the potential and capacity to test here in Nevada. What I want to say is that our pledge isn’t to maintain this capacity but to advance it—and not just take advantage of opportunities but create our own.”

Currently, Pandori said, the state has been testing an average of 6,000 people per day for COVID-19.

Contact tracing is nothing new

Speaking to contact tracing, Peek said despite the fact that many people may never have heard of it, it’s nothing new.

“It’s gotten much more attention in the media and publicly, related to COVID, but I want to assure you that this is something that public health does as a foundational role,” she said. “We’ve been doing it for sexually transmitted diseases, for tuberculosis, for as long as public health has been in place. The only difference with COVID is the scope of the infection as well as the potential for spread. So, all of our systems have to be grown and move at a much faster pace.”

Peek made note of several things the state is doing to ensure effective contact tracing—including efforts to communicate with those who’ve been exposed to a COVID-positive person within 24 hours.

The state is also partnering with the Nevada System of Higher Education, according to Peek, to prepare for the hiring of some 250 people.

“We’re working with Great Basin College in the Elko area in eastern Nevada and then the universities in the more urban areas to support this effort,” she said. “Today, individuals can go on and get contact and case investigation training for free so they’re ready when we’re available to start hiring.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Emergency Operations Center (EOC) staff is hard at work keeping Americans safe 24/7. In response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, the EOC has sent teams to help with clinical management, contact tracing, and communications. Image: CDC

According to Peek, contract tracers in Nevada will soon number 600.

“We have private-sector surge staff,” she said. “We also have a great deal of our volunteers—close to 200—that are being trained and are ready to support us. As well, with the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grant that was just passed prior, we have the ability to hire staffing to support us. And then I do want to acknowledge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation. They are also providing funds to hire staff directly and work with our health department.”

Another piece to the plan is technological, Peek said.

“We purchased a platform called Salesforce that several other states are using that streamlines process exponentially. So that would mean we could do our jobs faster and more effectively and in a more standardized way.”

Last but not least, Peek said, “We are assessing with our neighboring states the use of phone-based applications that might assist in contact tracing. We’re still early in that assessment, but that’s a tool where technology can supplement—in a voluntary way—what we’re already going to be doing in a public health capacity.”

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.