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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

NC's Contact Tracers Only Reaching A Fraction Of People

Flickr/Karolina Kabat
DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said many people refuse to answer phone calls from numbers they don't recognize and others are wary about sharing their friends' or family members' contact information with tracers.

North Carolina’s top health official said Tuesday that the state’s coronavirus contact tracers have only been able to reach between one-third and one-half of the people they call.

“We are not close to where I would want to be in terms of the number of folks that we are able to contact,” said North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen.

Cohen said many people refuse to answer phone calls from numbers they don’t recognize and others are wary about sharing their friends’ or family members’ contact information with tracers. The state’s Latino and Hispanic communities have been less responsive than others, she said.

“I think there is certainly more distrust and more fear in addition to a language barrier that is a challenge there,” Cohen said.

Contact tracers reach out to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus to try to identify the people that person could have potentially exposed. They then call those close contacts and ask them to self-quarantine. Cohen called it “an important tool” in preventing the virus’ spread.

The state had more than 1,500 full-time and part-time staff supporting contact tracing at the local health department level as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the NCDHHS website. That number includes 398 tracers it hired through the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative over the past few months--188 of whom the state said are bilingual.

Cohen said North Carolina is working with partners to improve the state’s contact tracing process and ability.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.