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Tarrant County Health Department denied request for additional contact tracers, nurses

The commissioners voted 3-2 against the program proposal.
Credit: WFAA

Tarrant County commissioners on Tuesday voted down a request from the health department for 270 more employees, including nurses and contact tracers, along with additional equipment and funding support.

Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja submitted a request for additional resources to help fight the county's surge of COVID-19 cases. Cases were declining in May, but by Memorial Day, the county began seeing an increase. In one week, the county saw 3,700 new cases, he said.

"We're starting to fall behind on a lot of contact tracing and case investigations," he said Tuesday at the commissioners court meeting.

The request included 105 contact tracers, 151 nurses/epidemiologist specialists, 12 administrative workers and two informatics workers. The program would also require furniture, IT and space. The total program cost was $20,458,910. The federal assistance from the CARES Act would have been used toward the cost.

County Judge Glen Whitely was not convinced the county could manage the workers, along with renting a building and equipment to support them.

In May, students from the University of North Texas Health Science Center volunteered to help the county with contact tracing and some were later hired, Taneja said. 

Whitely said he didn't "see a whole lot of success with the 50 hired thus far."

"I haven’t seen us get a lot of results out of, I guess what I want to know is completion," Whitely said. "I’d rather pay somebody to complete it and only pay them if they complete them than to pay for a bunch of folks ... as opposed to getting a vendor in here who we pay as they perform."

Taneja explained the 50 hired were students who were volunteering to contact trace. Some were later hired in permanent jobs. But now the county is trying to keep up with the 45% week-to-week average increase over the last six weeks, Taneja said.

"In May, we were at least 500 a week, now we are 3,700 a week," Taneja said. "We have gone exponentially higher and we don’t have that kind of staff available to get the numbers down like you asked."

Whitely said he would prefer hiring a business that will provide contact tracing as a service and pay based on their performance.

"If nothing changes with the trend, by the time we actually get 270 on board I might have to come back and go ‘OK we need more,” Taneja said. "That’s the nature of how this is going at this point."

Whitely and commissioners Gary Fickes and J.D. Johnson voted against the proposal. Roy Charles Brooks and Devan Allen voted in favor of it.

The court approved the other measures brought forth by the health department, which included accepting relief aid and a service agreement to dispense medicine in an emergency, such as if a vaccine becomes available.

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