During a press conference on May 6 in Miami, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees explained how the state is attacking COVID-19.
“Testing also goes hand in hand with something we call contact testing,” Rivkees explained. “It means identifying individuals who have COVID-19, identifying who their contacts are, and having those individuals isolate,” he said.
Florida’s top doctor went on to declare, “this is a way that we’re going to actually stop the cycle of transmission from person to person,” Rivkees told reporters.
Long considered one of the oldest tools in the public health toolbox, contact tracing is a centuries-old way of stopping the spread of dangerous diseases.
In Florida, state leaders have touted the practice as part of the state’s ongoing strategy in battling the virus.
“We’ve been doing it from the very beginning and are continuing to expand,” Dr. Rivkees said.
But details on how and how much success Florida is having from tracing the virus remains largely unknown.
Adriane Casalotti is chief of government and public affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. She said tracing the coronavirus is presenting challenges she and experts like her have never seen before.
“With coronavirus, every minute counts. Every minute that we’re not in touch with someone who may be infected and asking them to remove themselves from the general population is a minute they can be transmitting the disease,” Casalotti said.
In Florida, after repeated requests for details on its contact tracing efforts including requests for the number of people traced and the number of employees tracing, Alberto Moscoso, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health sent us an email stating, “More than 1,100 individuals, including students, epidemiologists and other staff from across the Department, are currently involved in contact tracing every positive case of COVID-19 in Florida:
According to Casalotti, industry standard is to have 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people.
Florida’s current population is nearly 21.5 million people which means, according to industry standards, the state is more than 5000 tracers short.
To date, more than 42,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Florida. Moscoso said the number of people employed to do contact tracing is “successfully meeting the current operational demand,” and added the rate of positive cases in Florida is on the decline. Moscoso also said the state is prepared to expand its efforts if and when necessary.
But Florida Senator Janet Cruz, a Democrat from Tampa, remains concerned.
“We had to scurry to hire epidemiologists. We didn’t have as many employed as we should have and we still don’t,” Cruz said.
We contacted nearly a dozen county health departments in our effort to find out more details on how counties are working with the state on contact tracing. Only the Polk County Health Department responded and explained its agency has 15-20 contact tracers who rotate daily.
The County is currently monitoring 296 people. According to a spokesperson, confirmed cases and close contacts of confirmed patients are entered in the state’s database for monitoring which is done through phone calls or a text message system.