Oklahoma health officials are working to re-hire contact tracers after cutbacks as cases of COVID-19 surge to pre-vaccine levels in the state. 

In April and May, when positive COVID-19 tests dipped down into figures not seen since the beginning of the pandemic, the state health department reduced its staff of contact tracers. The workers are tasked with reaching out to infected Oklahomans and tracing their movements in hopes of figuring out how they became infected with the virus and who they may have exposed.

What had been a group of about 175 people spread out across Oklahoma in six regions was cut to a crew of about 30. State health officials believed that Oklahoma’s initial quick uptake of the vaccines meant there was less need for contact tracing.

“We did an assessment of our task force … and we decided to only keep a core group (of contact tracers) in each region,” Jolianne Stone, state epidemiologist for the Oklahoma State Health Department, told The Frontier. “We did train them so that if we did see an increase, we could hire back in and quickly expand the numbers.”

Oklahoma has seen a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in July, a rise that has coincided with lagging vaccination rates, the end of mask mandates and the re-opening of society. 

On Thursday, the state reported 1,581 new cases of COVID-19 and the seven-day average increased to 875, figures not seen in the state for months.

The state health department now aims to roughly double the number of contact tracers in each region from five or six up to 10, Stone said. She hopes that’s the last time an increase is necessary.

“We do assess the situation on a daily basis so we can scale up,” she said. “But hopefully we don’t have to. Hopefully people will choose to go get vaccinated so that we can prevent any future surge.”

Stone said the state uses Express Services Inc., a private employment staffing company, to hire contact tracers. The state signed a contract with the company last fall, she said. Contact tracers are paid either through grant money, if it is available, or through state money allotted to the OSDH. 

Some contact tracers work 40 hours a week or more, she said, though many work part time hours, and/or nights and weekends. The pay is hourly and is dependent on job duties and experience level, she said.

Last year, Oklahoma spent millions of dollars to concentrate its contact tracing efforts at the Shepherd Center in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Watch reported in late 2020 that the surge in cases in the state eventually overwhelmed the contact tracing effort, and workers fell behind. The project was eventually scrapped and a report from the state’s Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency released in March found the contact tracing efforts “had no measurable impact on the pandemic.”

OSDH also told Oklahoma Watch that many people who were reached by contact tracers last year simply refused to participate in the program. The work was eventually de-centralized and sent back to a regional system.

The OSDH also said earlier this year it was working toward replacing its current infectious disease tracking software. It had been using an outdated system that Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye had said contributed to the system being overrun last year. Stone told The Frontier on Tuesday that OSDH is switching to the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System Base System that the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control uses. She said the “anticipated timeline” for the switch is in September.

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