Indiana state health officials said contact tracing will expand in the coming month in an attempt to gather more information about how many additional people may be affected by a positive COVID-19 case.
The Indiana State Department of Health will partner with the staffing firm Maximus to hire 500 people for a contact tracing call center and establish a partnership with local health departments to ensure more information about disease spread is available throughout the state. The announcement arrives as Gov. Eric Holcomb is expected to lift some restrictions on businesses later this week, altering the stay-at-home order that has been in effect since March 25.
“This centralized, technology-based system will free our local health departments up to focus on connecting individuals in isolation or quarantine to local resources they may need to support themselves,” said Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box at a virtual press briefing Wednesday.
Local health departments have worked on contact tracing since the COVID-19 outbreak began. The ISDH reported 605 new cases of the virus Wednesday, bringing the total number of positive cases to 17,182 in the state. A total of 964 patients have died from the disease.
Box said it will cost around $43 million per year to establish the new contact tracing platform and centralized call center. Staff at the call center, she said, do not need to have a college degree and will be asked to complete a training course.
In the new system, Box said patients who test positive for COVID-19 will receive a text or email that asks them to call the center first. But if the patient doesn’t respond fast enough — within four hours, Box said — the call center will reach out to them directly for information.
Box said she understands this might raise concerns about privacy among some residents but emphasized the need for patients to respond to the investigatory calls.
“This is something that, from a public health standpoint, you really are obligated to answer us and to give us a call back,” Box said. “But all of this is still private health information. It’s not something we share widely.”
The ISDH contact tracing call center will launch May 11 and “will be in operation as long as needed,” according to a slide shared during the press briefing. A report conducted by Johns Hopkins University estimates 100,000 public health workers are needed around the country to make effective contact tracing possible.
While Holcomb has yet to provide specific guidance on what parts of the state could open in May, President Donald Trump has issued an executive order forcing meatpacking plants to continue production through the Defense Production Act.
When asked about the executive order, Holcomb said he agreed with the decision. He noted precautions like testing and site sanitization are available to keep employees safe as production is expected to continue at sites like the Tyson pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, which recently closed in response to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among its employees.
“I said a few weeks ago that we needed to make sure our meat and medicine supply chains were kept open and flowing,” Holcomb said. “We need to do everything we can to make sure that that business is safely conducted.”
Box said that while around 50% of the employees at the Logansport Tyson plant tested positive for the disease, there is still an opportunity for the plant to operate safely, even if that means reducing productivity.
“Our goal is to keep the plants open, but not at the expense of the health of the individuals, the employees that work there,” Box said.
Indiana Department of Correction Medical Director Dr. Kristen Dauss also addressed questions about COVID-19 infections among the state’s incarcerated populations. Dauss said the department has ordered strike teams to assist in gathering information about disease spread in IDOC facilities.
But Dauss said increased testing is only one step she and IDOC leaders will have to take to protect offenders in their care.
“What we’ve learned from not just Ohio, but other surrounding states, is the test is just one piece of it, but it’s not the whole package,” Dauss said.
The ACLU of Indiana, however, said it has filed public records requests in Indiana and in coordination with ACLU affiliates around the country in an attempt to understand what public officials may have not revealed about COVID-19 infections in prisons.
The requests are in response to a new model created by the ACLU in partnership with researchers at Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee that predicts as many as 200,000 people could die in federal and state facilities if they are not released to slow disease spread.
“Public health experts have rung multiple alarm bells about the spread of COVID-19 in our prison systems,” Jane Henegar, executive director at the ACLU of Indiana, said in a news release. “Despite those warnings, the depopulation of jails, prisons and other detention facilities continues too slowly to avoid catastrophe.”
Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.