As Texas recruits an army of people to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, there is a debate on how large that army should be to help save lives and bring back more normalcy to the state.
“Contact tracers” are the new virus detectives in this pandemic, tracking down people who may have been exposed so they can seek testing and isolate, if needed, to stop the chain of infection.
Gov. Greg Abbott says the state needs 4,000 such tracers to turn back the virus.
But some researchers say about twice that number is needed – a sizeable difference from the governor’s estimate, and one that experts say could determine who wins in the war against COVID-19.
NBC 5 Investigates
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A study at George Washington University estimated Texas needs more than 8,000 contact tracers, with more than 1,400 of them in Dallas County alone.
“The only way that you’ll be able to contain COVID-19 through contact tracing is by having enough people to be able to contact all your cases,” said Dr. Candice Chen, head of GWU’s team that estimated how many tracers are needed in each state and county in the country.
Another model developed by Harvard University showed 7,800 contact tracers are needed in Texas, based on current calculations using the formula the Harvard team developed.
Abbott, in an interview with NBC 5, dismissed the higher estimates.
“If we had 7,000 (contact tracers), more than half of them would be sitting around with nothing to do,” the governor said.
“So just like there were a lot of bogus predictions about how many people would die, and things like that, there are bogus predictions about how many people are needed to undertake tasks like this,” he said.
NBC 5 Investigates found the estimates vary on how many contact tracers are needed in Texas, depending on several factors that include:
- Will the number of positive cases rise or fall?
- Will people continue to exercise social distancing?
- And how many calls can contact tracers make a day?
Some models are based on the assumption that the average person with COVID-19 comes in contact with 10 people who subsequently need to be notified about exposure.
If the infected person has practiced good social distancing that number can drop below five; if not, the number can increase above 10.
Some of the models also assume contact tracers are able to contact an average of 10 people a day. But that number can drop, depending on the cases they are working, while meanwhile more positive cases continue to stack up.
“So you need to just make sure you have the ability to continue to ramp up as needed,” said Dr. Syra Madad, who’s featured in the Netflix series, Pandemic, and a former leader of the infectious disease response team for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In an interview with NBC 5 Investigates, Madad said 4,000 contact tracers is a solid baseline number for Texas.
“I think that 4,000 is a good start. But you know, you have to be nimble, knowing that this is something that you’re going to continue to increase,” she said.
Despite Abbott’s estimate, the state health department said the force of contact tracers could increase.
“4,000 is… the target for now. That doesn’t mean that’s where we’re going to end up… if we need, we’ve got flexibility,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the DSHS.
Health officials and state and county leaders say they expect estimates to change, depending on what COVID-19 does, and how Texans respond.
“It is not necessarily that is the right number,” said Dr. Chen, referring to the George Washington University estimate of 8,000 contact tracers.
“Some of it is going to depend again on what different communities are doing,” she said.
After his comments last week, we asked the governor’s office to describe the formula or modeling system he is relying on to come up with his estimate of 4,000 tracers.
So far, NBC 5 Investigates has not received an answer.