State Contact Tracers Face 2,600-Case Backlog; Ricketts: 'We Didn't Do Our Job'

Ashley Newmyer (at podium) is chief data strategist at the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services. (Photo: NET Nebraska Stream)
November 20, 2020 - 2:50pm

State health officials say some Nebraskans who test positive for COVID-19 are being asked to notify their own close contacts.

That temporary measure is one of several the Department of Health and Human Services has put in place. Chief Data Strategist Ashley Newmyer says the measures are necessary to work through a backlog of about 2,600 cases.  

“About 50% of these are needing a second call, and 50% of these are needing an initial call," Newmyer said. "This is certainly  not what we are expecting of our contact tracers, but we want to get through this backlog so that we can further implement what our standard is for contact tracing."

Newmyer says they’ve also reduced the interview time with people who test positive and are bringing on more staff to help with the surge in cases.

Gov. Pete Ricketts says he didn’t know about the problem until he heard from a reporter that someone waited eight days before hearing from a contact tracer.

"When we looked into that more carefully we found that we in the state have not been doing our job and we had not been keeping up with the surge in cases we’ve been seeing and have allowed a backlog to develop," Ricketts said. 

Newmyer says they expect to make it through the backlog of cases by the end of next week. A new permanent process allows tracers to send a text message to people who test positive, letting them know to expect a phone call and asking them to answer calls from unknown numbers.

Most contact tracing is handled by the regional health departments, who are able to contact the state team for help. 

Panhandle Public Health Department Director Kim Engel said Thursday they recently reached out to the state for contact tracing help: "And they were overwhelmed by thousands of cases." 

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