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Missouri health officials scrambling to trace virus cases

By The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Local health departments in Missouri don't have enough staffers to conduct contact training for all of the COVID-19 cases popping up, so they have been prioritizing the ones they try to trace back to their sources, officials said.

The coronavirus has been surging in many states in recent months, including Missouri, where the rate of positive tests over the past two weeks is more than double the national average, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Larry Jones, who heads the Missouri Center for Public Health Excellence, said local health departments in the state are struggling to keep up with contact tracing, which helps determine how a disease is spreading.

“There are more cases and contacts to follow up with than contact tracers have time for,” Jones said. “This means days can go by between the time that someone is exposed and when they are called by a contact tracer.”

Missouri on Sunday reported 4,131 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths from the disease caused by the coronavirus. That pushed its death toll since the pandemic began to 3,153.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Missouri has risen over the past two weeks, from about 1,789 new cases per day on Oct. 24 to about 3,126 as of Saturday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. James Hinrichs, an infectious disease expert with the St. Louis County Health Department, said investigators can't keep up with the 250 to 300 new cases that are reported in the county each day. Recently, there have been days when more than 500 new cases were reported in the county.

“We generally can only reach, on a daily basis, about 30% to 40% of the new cases at present,” Hinrichs said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. So staff prioritizes the cases in workplaces and schools that could lead to outbreaks.

Jefferson County health department program coordinator Jeana Vidacak said children, long-term care residents and those older than 65 get interviewed first. Others aren’t reached for several days if at all.

“We are not able to keep up. We are definitely behind,” Vidacak said.