Less than 100 employees at the national Covid-19 contact tracing center
As of October 20, only 44 full-time equivalent employees worked at the National Investigation and Research Center, raising questions about contact tracing capacity as cases increase, reports Marc Daalder.
The recent spike in Covid-19 cases has put pressure on Auckland-based public health officials, demanding that public health units elsewhere in the country and the Department of Health’s centralized contact tracers provide a additional support.
But only 44 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees worked at the national contact tracing center as of Oct. 20, according to a response to a written parliamentary question from National Congressman Chris Bishop.
The figure raises further questions about the capacity of the contact tracing system, which has never been resourced to meet the threshold of tracing the 1,000 cases per day that the government has been tasked with reaching in. April 2020. It also seems to show that the system has shrunk since the first peak of the current epidemic. By this point, hundreds of employees from other government departments and contracted call centers had been recruited to join the effort.
“I find that quite surprising. Contact tracing has been very important since April 2020, but we just haven’t had the investment and attention that it should have had,” Bishop said.
“I think we’re now down to four independent reviews, all of which have made various recommendations, the central point of which is,“ You need to put in extra resources and focus here. ”Basically, that would probably be best described as, from the end. lip service has been lent to these reports. The 44 FTE figure reflects that. “
The fact that the Department of Health never reached the threshold of 1,000 cases per day was officially confirmed by Director of Public Health Caroline McElnay on October 14. She said only 170 to 180 cases a day would put strain on the contact tracing system. This was in line with the predictions of some of the expert contact tracing reviews that the system would struggle for an extended period of 100-200 daily cases.
In response to the increase in cases, the government has now started targeting contact tracing resources where they can make the most difference. However, this necessarily means that the system is no longer operating at its maximum efficiency. Useful work that could help the government contain the outbreak has been cut to make way for critical work that could keep the number of cases from exploding.
These changes include a decision to no longer investigate the origins of unrelated cases, but instead focus on the downstream transmission of each new case. Contacts of cases are much more likely to be classified as casual contacts than as close contacts. During the first phase of the outbreak, tens of thousands of people with only fleeting exposures were classified as close contact, but only a handful ended up testing positive.
Occasional contacts are also subject to more lax requirements than in the past. They don’t need to self-isolate at home or get tested, unless they are symptomatic.
Despite this, the system has struggled to catch up. As of Tuesday, a quarter of the 3,397 known close contacts had not yet received a first phone call from contact tracers. A similar proportion had not yet returned a first test result.
While the percentage of daily infectious cases in the community has fallen from a peak in early October, the absolute number is rising. Each of them has the potential to trigger a new chain of transmission. The reason they are not isolated is that they have not yet been contacted by tracers and informed that they have been exposed.
“The risk [of contact tracing failing] is that you fail to pick up people who should be isolated because they are close contacts and potentially the spread of Covid is worse than it would be otherwise, ”Bishop said.
“We are entering a new phase in our Covid approach, moving from elimination to deletion, but that doesn’t mean contact tracing is becoming any less important. If anything, you could actually argue that it becomes more important. “