Testing can identify people who are sick, but by itself it’s not enough to break chains of infection. That requires tracing the contacts of people who are ill so they can be tested and quarantined to avoid further spread of the virus.
But even as the U.S. scales up testing to record levels, the country is woefully behind on contact tracing. The federal government has largely left that task up to understaffed and underfunded state and local health departments that are unable to keep up with the caseload.
Experts and government officials warned months ago that the country would need a minimum of 100,000 contact tracers to reopen safely. But states are working with only one-third that number, a shortfall that has helped fuel the recent spike in cases.
Rather than establish a national strategy for contact tracing, the Trump administration has given feedback on state plans and admonished the public to maintain physical distancing and practice robust hand-washing.
Alaska’s chief medical officer, Anne Zink, told lawmakers and reporters Thursday that her small staff at the state’s Department of Health is starting to be overwhelmed.