Jackson County hopes to ramp up its contact tracing efforts soon.

The County Legislature last week approved $1.5 million from the county’s CARES Act funds for the Health Department to hire up to 52 workers temporarily to take over contact tracing and other work associated with COVID-19 cases.

The Health Department originally asked for $5 million, including software and personal protective equipment, and for the workers to stay on up to five years or until a vaccine is found. The $1.5 million covers workers through December, and the county has already put out notice about those openings.

“This is enough to get her (department director Bridgette Shaffer) started and hiring some people,” Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin said, referring to questions about the $5 million request and the $1.5 million ultimately approved.

Contact tracing is considered a key component of controlling communicable diseases, part of what Shaffer called a “box-it-in” strategy that the Health Department hopes to use. It begins with identifying a case, isolating that COVID-positive patient and then identifying recent contacts of the person with the disease. Those contacts are placed on quarantine for 14 days, and tracers follow up twice a day to check on symptoms.

Shaffer said her department has pulled nurses, data analysts and others into a team of 11 for contact tracing for the time being. Hiring additional staff allows those people to go back to their regular, necessary services such as immunizations, and would be critical to reopening in phases and controlling outbreaks.

County Administrator Troy Schulte said the county is working with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Johnson and Wyandotte counties and Blue Cross Blue Shield to develop a proposal for a mobile app to help manage contact tracing electronically. Citizens would download such an app to their smartphones. Schulte said he hoped to have an update this week.

Like Schulte, Kansas City Health Director Rex Archer also emphasized the need for regional cooperation with contact tracing. Archer and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas pitched the County Legislature last week, hoping to procure a sizable portion of the county’s $122 million in CARES Act funds. Lucas is asking for $54.5 million for his city, $11.3 million of which would go toward its health department to help boost their contact tracing efforts.

“We all need to get our resources up and running as quickly as can,” Archer said, adding that they have been coordinating behind the scenes with contact tracing.

One potential aspect of contact tracing not discussed by county legislators last week: the standing offer from the fire services in Independence, Lee’s Summit and Central Jackson County to have firefighters help that effort at no extra cost, something for which they would have training.

Shaffer had said she needs people for 40 hours a week, every week for at least the next few months, “and I don’t think the fire departments can commit to that.”

Galvin replied that they could give some time, and they’re appropriately educated and trained for such a task.

Shaffer said firefighters could go through the volunteer process through Truman Medical Centers to help.