Georgia expands contact tracing program

The state’s growing army of contact tracers have contacted roughly 11% of the more than 34,000 Georgians who have tested positive so far for COVID-19, according to an analysis of Department of Public Health numbers released Tuesday.

The new figures were released shortly after Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey told reporters her department plans to quadruple the number of trained contact tracers by June 23.

“We’re incrementally increasing our capacity every day,” Toomey said during a press conference with Gov. Brian Kemp.

Before the coronavirus, Georgia employed 250 tracers to contain the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV. In addition to deploying those staffers to cover the coronavirus, Toomey wants to hire up to 750 additional tracers, including student interns from the state’s medical and public health colleges.

Read more: Coronavirus may spread too fast for Georgia tracers to catch up

» Coronavirus in Georgia: stats in real time

Tracers have already reached out to more than 3,800 people who have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as 13,000 of their close contacts, DPH said.

The department previously declined to answer questions about where it has targeted its efforts so far, such as whether it was focusing on positive cases in senior living facilities, among medical workers or other high-risk groups. The coronavirus continues to sicken upwards of 700 Georgians a day.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Kemp and Toomey urged Georgians to cooperate with the contact tracers if they are contacted.

“We need your help to defeat this virus,” said Kemp.

Tracers reach out to people who test positive for COVID-19 and ask who they’ve been in close contact with for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset. The tracers then reach out to those close contacts and urge them to isolate for 14 days and log their symptoms into a new online monitoring platform, the Healthy Georgia Collaborative, using their smartphone.

The platform, which debuted last week, was developed for the state by the technology services company MTX Group using Google Cloud data.

If users report they are experiencing symptoms, the program will prompt them to call 911 or consult with their doctor. They can also opt in to receive daily text messages for 14 days while they isolate that remind them to report their symptoms. People who don’t proactively log their symptoms will be contacted by a tracer over the phone.

Both Kemp and Toomey emphasized that health data plugged into the program would remain confidential and that the application was not designed to be a tracking tool. Recent polling shows many Americans are hesitant about using a separate app being jointly developed by Apple and Google that uses Bluetooth data to locate and ping users who cross paths with the phone of someone who tests positive for the virus.

Toomey sought to differentiate between the two on Tuesday.

“Our app is not one that monitors your every move… as you’re driving around,” said Toomey. “What our app is designed to do is to allow our staff to monitor people without them having to call.”

State officials face a steep set of challenges as they accelerate the contact tracing program. One of their largest will be quickly gaining the trust of people contacted, particularly those in the state's most vulnerable communities who may be wary of government or think it's a scam.

Toomey suggested that was top of mind during Tuesday’s briefing. She said she was searching for celebrities and community leaders who could help act as ambassadors.

“It’s so critical that communities understand why we’re doing this and why it’s important to cooperate with us,” she said.