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

Mecklenburg County scales back COVID contact tracing


Mecklenburg County’s health department has scaled back its contact tracing for COVID-19.

Now, if residents test positive for COVID-19 in the county, they will probably not receive a call from one of the county’s contact tracers. Instead, they will get a text message with instructions for how to do their own contact tracing.

“Community-level contact tracing, where we were trying to trace every case and follow all of their contacts, at this point, is not the strategy that we’re focused on and not putting a lot of resources behind,” Dr. Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County's health director, said in a recent interview with WFAE.

Washington said the county’s contact tracers are targeting their efforts to follow and manage potential outbreaks in places like nursing homes and long-term care facilities along with the county jail, schools and homeless shelters because there’s a higher risk of rapid spread among these populations.

People who test positive or who have COVID-like symptoms should call people they were in close contact with and shouldn’t be embarrassed about it, Washington said. Roughly 1 in 3 people tested for the virus in Mecklenburg County are positive, according to the latest county numbers as of Wednesday.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of to have COVID. It’s a respiratory illness and we never know when any of us will have it,” Washington said. “But it’s important for the health of everybody for us to just tell people.”

He added that he believes community-level contact tracing at the county health department will ultimately “be largely phased out” as the coronavirus becomes endemic, or regularly circulates in the community with lower rates of transmission, hospitalization and death as well as a lessened impact on public life.

In July 2020, Mecklenburg County employed 25 full-time contact tracers and another 100 people were working part-time to help prevent further spread of the coronavirus. Those workers were hampered by people not providing phone numbers or addresses for their close contacts, though Mecklenburg County told WFAE at the time that it didn’t have information about the contact tracing success rate.

Meanwhile, then-head of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mandy Cohen, said in July 2020 that the state’s contact tracers only reached between one-third and one-half of the people they called.

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.