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Montezuma County backs off contact tracing amid surge; San Juan Basin moves forward

Testing and vaccines are available during the latest COVID-19 surge in Montezuma County.
Montezuma health officials counting on infected residents to warn others

The use of contact tracing to control the recent surge of COVID-19 infections varies from county to county.

The Montezuma County Health Department has reduced its contact tracing efforts for every positive case, while San Juan Basin Public Health, which serves La Plata and Archuleta counties, is more committed to the practice.

Bobbi Lock

Montezuma County Health Department officials have not responded to interview requests about its contact tracing, but Director Bobbi Lock released a statement in response to written questions from The Journal.

“Prior to the vaccine availability and other effective treatments for COVID-19, contact tracing was one of the many important tools for containing the spread of the virus,” along with prevention measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, Lock stated.

“In the early phases of an epidemic, this is typically very successful as proven by our use of this technique last year in its traditional form,” she said. “At this point in time in our community, contact tracing is not as effective due to the severity of the disease spread.”

Lock said when there is a positive case, the health department provides information and encourages the person to notify close contacts about their positive status.

When people learn they were in close contact with a positive case, they are encouraged to reach out to the health department for further guidance and information, Lock said.

“We also have conversations around vaccine availability, and make sure everyone knows that we are here to support them in whatever decisions they make for themselves and their families,” Lock stated.

In this file photo Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria gave a statement about the status of the pandemic. County health department Director Bobbi Lock and Dr. Kent Aikin attended in support of the announcement. (Courtesy Montezuma County)

Lock said contact tracing is still a tool the county department uses in managing the disease, and is applied “on a case-by-case basis depending on each situation and the needs that surround that particular case.”

Lock’s statement Friday came two days after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 166 new cases in Montezuma County since Oct. 14, an increase of 39% from the previous seven days.

Six active COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in the county as of Oct. 21, according to CDPHE data.

One of the outbreaks, at the Montezuma County Detention Center, doubled in size in a week, increasing to 28 cases and including two staff members.

And on Thursday, Montezuma-Cortez High School shut down its volleyball program through Oct. 25 because of multiple cases of COVID-19.

CDPHE defines an “outbreak” of COVID-19 as five or more positive tests at a single location within 14 days.

San Juan Basin embraces strategy

At San Juan Basin Health department, the aim is to conduct contract tracing on 100% of positive cases reported in its jurisdiction, said Executive Director Liane Jollon, in an interview with The Journal Friday.

When case volume is high, text services are also used to inform people they might have been exposed, then follow-up calls are made.

Liane Jollon

“We want to let people know as quickly as possible if they have been exposed. In our experience, getting that information out has a tremendous impact on limiting the spread,” Jollon said.

She said when local case numbers get too high for staff to handle, contact tracing support has been provided by CDPHE.

San Juan Basin has retained additional staff for case investigations, which includes contact tracing. Funding was made available through state and federal grants.

Contact tracing leads to increased testing and isolation measures for people exposed to COVID, and it increases vaccine rates, said Elizabeth Ferguson, communications specialist for San Juan Basin Health.

“It seems like an old-fashioned approach, but it is one of the most effective means to control the spread, especially with the delta variant, that has a higher transmission rate,” she said.

The contact tracing calls also saves the infected person energy, and are done professionally and with confidentiality, Ferguson said.

Further, she said, most people reached through contact tracing have been receptive, she said.

Equity outreach programs to prevent and treat COVID were formed in La Plata and Archuleta counties to meet the needs of underserved populations, such as the homeless.

Neal Cantin, a Mancos resident, has urged Montezuma County to commit more to contact tracing to control the virus spread.

He said he believes he became infected with COVID while volunteering at a local school, and he was dismayed to find that Montezuma County health officials had made contact tracing a reduced priority.

Cantin said he was told by a health department representative that he should contact people he had been near about his positive test.

“I feel they are passing the burden of public health onto the infected individual with the illness,” he said.

Cantin added that he also would like to see the county health department resume posting case numbers on its Facebook page.

“Communication is key. People need that data to make decisions,” he said.

COVID case numbers per county are updated regularly on the CDPHE website.

CDPHE responds

The Journal reached out to CDPHE with questions regarding contact tracing.

In email responses Friday, CDPHE stated: “Local public health agencies lead contact tracing and case investigation for cases in their jurisdiction.”

In May, local public health agencies received funding through the federal Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity cooperative agreement to sustain and increase their case investigation and contact tracing resources, CDPHE said. The money is intended to be used for case investigation, contact tracing, outbreak investigation, and testing efforts.

“Case investigation, contact tracing, and outbreak investigation are required activities in the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity funding contract provided to local public health agencies,” according CDPHE.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com