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Contact tracing in Minnesota has blossomed into a gargantuan task

Thousands of contact tracers are needed to handle the volume of cases.

The number of people needed to carry out contact tracing for COVID-19 patients has quickly mushroomed from hundreds to thousands in a matter of a couple weeks. 

Just two weeks ago, state leaders estimated that around 750 contact tracers would be needed to track Minnesotans falling ill with the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as the new coronavirus. But with testing capacity increasing, so have the number of positive results. 

That development has seen the state's number of confirmed cases skyrocket from around 5,100 a week ago to more than 8,500 today. More cases means more contact tracing. But that's not the sole reason for the rising need.

"The numbers have increased significantly from our prior estimates, partly as we have learned more about the effects of asymptomatic spread and therefore the need to test more broadly," said Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). 

Malcolm also attributes the tracing demand to more employers looking to have employees tested to ensure a safe return to the workplace, namely at meat production facilities where there have been outbreaks in numerous greater Minnesota cities. 

Language barriers have also slowed the investigation process. 

"We had been doing all our follow up within 24 hours of receiving a report. That has slowed in part because of the volume and in part because it's taking longer to do our contact investigations," said Kris Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division at the MDH. 

She said the "vast majority" of their cases are for patients whose first language isn't English. Interpreters are being used along with giving non-English speaking patients access to a language line to receive messages from the MDH. 

"Investigations are very thorough," Ehresmann explained, noting that a contact tracer will detail the onset of a patient's symptoms, their activities, and who they've made contact with. They also spend a significant amount of time answering questions from patients.

Once a person tests positive for the virus, a contact tracer will attempt to conduct an interview. If they're able to identify people who've been in contact with the infected patient, they can warn them so those contacts are able to quarantine and help avoid further spread. 

As of Monday, the MDH had 150 case investigators and they're adding another 160 this week, according to Ehresmann. Once Minnesota gets to 4,200 contact tracers, it'll be nearly half of what Wuhan had. Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was discovered, has approximately twice as many residents as Minnesota. 

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