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As COVID-19 cases surge, contact tracing lags behind

Matthew Park was exposed to COVID-19 in October. State contact tracers reached out to him a month later — long after his quarantine period ended.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — As COVID-19 cases hit record highs, the Knox County Health Department said it needs the community members to step up.

"A crucial part of our response is community responsibility," Dr. Martha Buchanan said. "It's imperative that individuals take proper precautions to isolate and notify close contacts that they need to quarantine."

Cases are increasing more rapidly than KCHD is able to expand its staff. When asked if there was a point where contact tracing would become impossible, Dr. Buchanan said "we're very near that."

KCHD has begun outsourcing some of their contact tracing to the state health department as cases soar, but the state is having challenges keeping up too.

"The surge in cases across the state has lessened our ability to conduct case investigation and contact tracing as quickly as we would like to," a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health said in a statement. "Increasing lab turnaround time, and increasing data processing time lengthens the amount of time between someone’s specimen getting collected and case investigators/contact tracers having the info they need to complete a case investigation."

Matthew Park was exposed to COVID-19 in October when his partner tested positive for the virus.

"I obviously went into quarantine as well and got sick," Park told 10News. "That was October. After that full period, on Nov. 12, they called [my partner] and said, 'Who have you been exposed to?' Told him to tell everyone."

It took another eight days — until Nov. 20 — for contact tracers to call Park.

"This was nearly a month after we had had COVID in our household," Park said. "After talking to them and asking questions about why this took so long, essentially they said we're understaffed, we can't violate HIPAA."

RELATED: KCHD: Virus volume is becoming so high it's time to reevaluate contact tracing process

Hancen Sale had a similar experience.

"[The contact tracers] were like, so you had a contact and it looks like your monitoring period ended today," Sale told 10News. "I had already gotten a test and everything because it had been a pretty close contact."

Both said they're grateful for all the work the health departments have been doing. The Knox County Health Department is hoping everyone follows their guidance like Park and Sale's close contacts. 

It can be about eight days between symptom onset and their chance to make contact with a COVID-19 positive patient, mainly because of testing and reporting turnaround times.

"Performing contact tracing during widespread community transmission — like we have now — is not as effective as it was earlier in this pandemic," Dr. Buchanan said. "We are reviewing our contact tracing strategy with our team to identify ways we can best prioritize this process."