Contact tracing is not working in Mecklenburg County

Nate Morabito
August 3, 2020

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Contact tracing is considered one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said the longtime epidemiology practice is not working.

In fact, she said Mecklenburg County is having so much trouble, she’s not convinced contact tracing, in its current form, is the best use of resources. Harris said case investigators are calling more than 800 people a day, but not getting “strict compliance.”

“They’re hanging up on staff sometimes. Sometimes they’re not answering the telephone and there have been occasions when the staff has been yelled at because people are tired of this and don’t want to hear the information,” Harris said. “The other challenge we have right now is we’re hearing people say, ‘Thank you for the information, but I have to work.'”

Harris blames the ineffectiveness on a lack of community cooperation and a lack of enforcement. At the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Harris said Mecklenburg County stopped issuing mandatory isolation and quarantine orders early in the pandemic.

“For it to be effective, we have to have people who are willing to communicate with us, be honest with us, recognizing the fact that we’re not out to get them. We are out to try to help and that help can come to the individual that we’re talking to, but also the bigger community. In public health, the community is our patient, so we’re trying to look at the big picture here,” Harris said. “Yes, those efforts can be useful, but I’m also concerned about how much time and energy we’re spending trying to contact people, leaving messages, getting hung up on. If the community is not interested in participating and working with us on this, it makes our job really difficult.”

Harris said county health officials are having conversations with the CDC and state about whether contact tracing in a pandemic is as useful as it needs to be. Mecklenburg County has long used case investigation and contact tracing to effectively prevent the spread of tuberculosis, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, but Harris said with those diseases, there are far fewer cases, which means if you can’t get in touch with someone by phone, you can go out and find them and then issue mandatory isolation or quarantine order.

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This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.

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