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St. Louis County Sets Record For Coronavirus Cases, Asks Patients To Do Contact Tracing

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Friday morning, Nov. 13, 2020. Page's order, which bans indoor dining and large gatherings and limits capacity in businesses to 25%, came hours after the St. Louis region passed the milestone of 2,000 deaths from COVID-19.
File photo / David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page last week introduced a raft of new public health orders, including updates to contact tracing procedures, that take effect Tuesday.

St. Louis County is asking residents who test positive for the coronavirus to call people they may have come into contact with.

Public health employees have become overwhelmed with the daily number of new cases, County Executive Sam Page said Monday. The county isaveraging close to 750 new coronavirus cases each day, too many for its contact tracers to handle.

“Contact tracing by a public health entity just does not work well when the positivity rate is above 5%, and we’re well past that,” Page said.

Public health officials have identified contact tracing as one of the most effective tools to control the spread of disease, along with social distancing, testing and mask wearing.

Tracers have for months been contacting those who test positive, investigating who they could have infected and calling those people. They encourage those contacts to isolate themselves before they spread the disease to others.

But now those public health workers can’t keep up, Page said. They’ll do their best to call those who have tested positive, but it will be up to the patients to reach out to anyone who may have been infected.

The county will prioritize “reaching out to those who are most likely to spread the disease to others,” he said. That could include younger people, who comprise many of the new cases in the region.

“We’re not abandoning contact tracing,” said Haley Alder, a contact tracing team leader for the county.

However, the health department has needed to create a more targeted plan.

“We think about age, we think about time from specimen collection,” Alder said. “So someone who had their test 14 days ago versus someone who had their test yesterday, that would look different.”

For every positive test, there could be dozens of potential contacts, Alder said. On Monday, the county for the first time tallied more than 1,000 cases in a single day.

That means potentially tens of thousands of people would need to be contacted by health workers.

The county earlier this fall said it had hired around 150 contact tracers, though turnover is high. Officials aim to hire more workers, Page said.

When people test positive, they need to tell everyone they’ve been close to for more than 15 minutes that they need to isolate themselves and receive a coronavirus test, Page said.

The request is part of the group of public health ordersthat go into effectTuesday in St. Louis County. As the spread of the virus has spun out of control, public health officials have deemed it necessary to reimpose restrictions on businesses and gathering sizes.

Under the new restrictions, restaurants in St. Louis County will no longer be able to offer indoor dining, and gatherings in both St. Louis and St. Louis County are capped at 10 people.

Page recommends households create coronavirus “bubbles” with a small group of people who only interact with each other. Doing so will decrease their risk of spreading the virus and make it easier to contact anyone present should someone become ill, he said.

Officials hope the restrictions on gathering sizes will eventually ease the burden on the region’s hospitals, which are often admitting more than 100 new coronavirus patients each day and are nearing capacity.

Late last week, Missouri Hospital Association President Herb Kuhn implored Gov. Mike Parson to issue a statewide mask mandate in an open letter.

“The virus is unbowed,” Kuhn wrote. “The wolf is at the door.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.