Failing, overburdened and outpaced by COVID-19, that’s how some are describing the state’s contact tracing program. Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone finds out where the program stands despite the state revealing little about its efforts
Touted as a major weapon in the war to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Florida’s contact tracing program remains an active part of the state’s ongoing battle but detail appears to still be shrouded in secrecy.
For months, we’ve reported on the state’s slow and struggling efforts to successfully contact trace.
Despite repeated requests for basic information including the most current number of tracers, success rates and other program details, Florida’s Department of Health (FDOH) has not provided any information.
So we asked cities and counties for insight. Most county health departments referred us to the FDOH.
But Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber didn’t hold back when asked how contact tracing was going in his city.
“It’s failing,” Gelber said. “Contact tracing still remains one of many weak points in our [the state’s] approach to this pandemic."
Gelber has been an outspoken critic of the state’s overall response to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately it's deja vu because it happened precisely like this over the summer and we didn’t even have enough people to make the calls at that point. Now we just have a terrible program, “ he said.
His city and Miami-Dade county run general remains an epic-center for positive cases, deaths and a continuous surge.
“When you don’t have contact tracing, you have the surge and that’s exactly what’s happening,” he said.
State draft reports about contact tracing in Miami Dade County Gelber provided to us show over a two-week period in December, less than half the number of people who tested positive were interviewed by a tracer within two days, records show.
“We are not even reaching 50% of those infected on a daily basis,” he said.
But tracing during the holidays is likely to cause challenges. Gelber said he receives updated reports every two weeks and a less than 50% contact rate is consistent in the county.
It’s unclear if that’s true and for how long. We asked FDOH for copies of all county reports on contact tracing going back to Nov. 1. In an email, a spokesperson with FDOH said our public record request, “is currently being processed.”
Across the county, contact tracing is a struggle for states and communities experiencing surges in positive cases.
“When cases are so high there’s only so much you can do,” said Adriane Casalotti with the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
Casalotti has encouraged contact tracing since the beginning of the pandemic. She said the surge coupled with people’s refusal to cooperate with tracers has left state contact tracing efforts severely weakened around the country.
“There are just some places that are not even attempting contact tracing to certain levels at this point depending on how their community spread is going,” Casalotti said.
Other states and communities are changing the way they trace by focusing only on populations most at risk of dying or spreading the disease.
Last summer, Florida contracted with an outside firm, Maximus Inc, to ramp up its contact tracing efforts. The state has three contracts with the Virginia-based government contractor worth a total of $70 million, according to the state’s government contract website.
As of August, the state with the help of Maximus had 4400 tracers working to stop the virus’ spread. Where that number stands now remains unknown.
In an email, a Maximus Inc spokesperson said, “Maximus continues to support the state in their contract tracing efforts, and we are working closely with the Florida Department of Health to provide any support they need to address the current COVID-19 cases in Florida.”
What that means and how it’s all going, like contact tracing itself in Florida, remains a question the state has yet to fully answer.