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Texas' Most Populous County Ramps Up Virus Tracing Efforts

Sanjuanita Magana walking past a line of cars.
David J. Phillip
Associated Press
Sanjuanita Magana, with Houston Independent School District Nutrition Services, walks past a line of cars waiting to pick up food from a distribution site at Kashmere High School.

The hundreds of contact tracers being trained in Texas’ most populous county will help it manage any flare ups of the coronavirus, but it doesn’t mean that things are back to normal and residents should still be doing their part to help stop the virus’ spread, officials said Wednesday.

A key part of Texas’ plan as it continues to reopen its economy has been building a team of 4,000 contact tracers, investigators who contact people who test positive for COVID-19, track down their contacts and get them into quarantine before they can spread the virus.

Harris County, which has more than 4.7 million residents, was expected to train 200 new contact tracers by Friday and another hundred by May 22.

However, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday warned residents that the small army of contact tracers being trained locally doesn’t mean residents should let their guard down.

“Where I don’t want to give any sense of false hope is to say, you know, if we get thousands of contact tracers, suddenly we’ll all be able to go back to usual, nobody needs to wear a face covering and we can all go back to the club and to the concert. You can’t,” said Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official.

At a separate news conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city will host two virtual job fairs on Thursday as part its effort to hire an additional 300 contact tracers. The city, located in Harris County, already has about 125.

Experts say hundreds of thousands of contact tracers will be needed across the country.

On Wednesday, Hidalgo and other county officials met and thanked about two dozen residents who were being trained by epidemiologists at the county’s public health department.

Some of the individuals being trained include students and residents who have recently been laid off because of the economic impact from the coronavirus.

“Just the fact that you’re able to give back to the community, it really gives us life and hope that we continue to move forward in a way that allows our community to come back from this incredibly difficult pandemic that all of us are facing,” Dr. Umair Shah, the top health official in Harris County, told the group of trainees.

The 300 contact tracers who will be trained by the county will be able to handle about 180 cases a day, which translates into performing about 3,600 contacts a day or up to 20,000 contacts a week.

But Hidalgo said the new contact tracers wouldn’t be able to do all the investigative work that would be required with an outbreak, such as if 500 people got sick after attending a concert and those people then infected others.

“So that’s why for the foreseeable future, we won’t have life as usual,” Hidalgo said. “We’re not done. The virus is still there.”

The county could hire additional contact tracers if it gets funding from the state. But Hidalgo said officials are waiting to see what resources the state will send.

Texas has more than 42,400 cases and at least 1,158 deaths related to the virus. The true numbers are likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.