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Maricopa County to expand contact tracing for coronavirus

Posted at 6:15 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 23:07:41-04

PHOENIX — Maricopa County is adding dozens of employees and contractors to significantly expand coronavirus contact-tracing efforts over the next several weeks.

"By July 1, Public Health has the capacity to contact 400 to 500 cases a day," said Marcy Flanagan, Executive Director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

The county fast-tracked the hiring process, and officials say they offered jobs to 33 health investigators in the last ten days. Full training can last up to a month, but new hires can start making some patient contacts within days.

“Starting as early as next week, once we receive confirmation of a positive diagnostic test, we will send cases a text message with a link to a survey that will collect their initial symptoms and provide tailored instructions to follow until they get a call from a Public Health investigator,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, MCPDH medical director. “This will ensure that the case knows to remain isolated from others and help us to expedite the investigation.”

Within days on the initial text message, coronavirus patients will get a one-on-one call from a health investigator, who will ask patients about all close contacts starting two days before the onset of symptoms. Those people will also be contacted by a representative from public health.

"We will not be asking for personal or health identifying information or financial information during the survey," Sunenshine said. "If someone receives a text or a phone call asking for this type of information, it is not Maricopa County Department of Public Health."

Other counties have similar processes in Arizona. Some smaller counties have been able to contact trace all cases since the beginning of the pandemic without hiring additional workers. Widespread contact tracing, according to public health officials, is critical to help contain the disease as states end their stay-at-home orders.

Maricopa County contact tracers ultimately could reach out to thousands of people a week, and they will be registering those people for an automated system, called Sara Alert, that will text or call people each days prompting them to report any COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone who develops symptoms will get a call from a health investigator who begins the contact tracing process with that person's contacts.

Health officials are also trying to knock down misconceptions that contact tracing is some kind of government spying or Big Brother looking over your shoulder.

"Let us be very clear that we are not putting some kind of technology on people's phones while we contact them and perhaps invading their privacy," said Maricopa County spokesman Fields Moseley.

Learn more about coronavirus and contact tracing from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.