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Spending on contact tracing efforts in Dallas County questioned

Dallas County allocated $10 million for contact tracing in June.
Credit: Dallas County
An automated contact tracing system developed by Parkland Hospital will send people daily messages for 14 days to see if they develop symptoms after being in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

DALLAS — When you’re fighting an enemy you cannot see, you at least hope to know where it might be headed.

Public health experts say with infectious disease, COVID-19 included, that direction comes from effective contact tracing.

Dr. Mark Casanova with the Dallas County Medical Society says while long turnaround times for receiving COVID-19 results and lack of cooperation from individuals contacted has contributed to ineffective contact tracing, a larger factor is at play. 

"Conceptually, I think finally folks got the notion of it (contact tracing), but then it’s like, ‘Where has it been all along’? Well, its been drowning," Casanova said.

Drowning in too many daily cases.

Texas Health and Human Services modeled an effective contact tracing program in Dallas County on the metric of 192 daily cases - a figure the county has exceeded everyday since late May. 

RELATED: Here are the confirmed cases of coronavirus in Dallas County

In early June, Dallas County commissioners approved $10 million to build up contact tracing efforts and have hired 175 employees to help with the effort.

On Tuesday, Commissioner John Wiley Price said county data shows those efforts have yielded only a couple thousand responses from COVID-19 positive cases.

“I’m just trying to figure out how are we managing this," Price said. "Are we just throwing the money up in the air right now?”

Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang said the investment in contact tracing is needed to track outbreaks and added, if anything, $10 million is a down payment on a historically underfunded public health unit.

"The fact that in 2020 we’re dealing with all these paper faxes and trying to answer lab data by hand, I mean that’s just appalling,” Huang said via video teleconference. 

Huang adds the goal now is to continue bringing daily case numbers down – to 200 or below – to allow effective contact tracing to take hold in Dallas County.

Casanova says getting daily numbers in that range would give public health experts better ability to see where COVID-19 is in the community. 

“Contact tracing does have the ability to save lives if we can identify clusters and bring them to a halt," Casanova said.