New Mexico continues to face challenges in contact tracing, ramps up efforts with new PSA

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – As the number of coronavirus cases climbs in New Mexico, the state continues to face challenges in contact tracing and is ramping up its efforts with a new TV-ad. Contact tracing is when the state reaches out to anyone who may have been in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 to let others know they may have been exposed to the virus. But, it only works if people answer their phones when the state calls. The state is having a hard time with this, which is partly why it’s putting out a new PSA.

“When the New Mexico Department of Health is on the line, answer the call. The conversation is short and confidential,” the PSA said in part.

The state’s Department of Health said it’s about a 50-50 chance someone answers the phone the first time the state calls for contact tracing.

“In the cell phone era, I don’t know about you but I know I do this too…I see a phone number on my phone that I don’t recognize, I’m not picking up the phone. I’m going to let that go to voicemail,” David Morgan with the DOH said. “So, what we’re just saying is you know, if you do receive a call from us, and we do leave voicemails, absolutely, if you do receive a call from us, please respond to the call. It’s important to be able to get you tested if you need to be tested or just be able to get you off the list to call is also equally important.”

Morgan said the workers do call until they get a hold of who they are trying to contact. He also said the likelihood of someone picking up their phone goes up the more times they call. While asymptomatic people spreading the virus is a concern, the DOH said one of the biggest challenges it’s facing right now is keeping up with the cases they do know about.

For example, it’s currently taking over two days for contact tracers to get in touch with and recommend quarantine to someone who came into contact with another who tested positive. The goal is to get that window below 36 hours or fewer.

“We need to have more people to be able to do the job, but we ask the public to help us help you. Please. And do everything that you can to be able to slow the spread of this. If we can’t get control the spread, yes, we’ll keep hiring contact tracers but we’re going to have to do so out of necessity or literally people live’s potentially being at risk,” Dr. Morgan said.

According to the DOH, the state has about 260 contact tracers and tries to bring on 25 every week. It said on Monday, it was on-boarding 35 more people. The state also cites privacy concerns as another roadblock to contact tracing.

“I just want reassure New Mexicans, this is confidential. This is not a values-based conversation. We’re trying to protect you and protect somebody else,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the July 30 press conference. “No judgments about anyone’s activities. There’s no enforcement. If you tell me, well, I did, I went to a bachelor party in Vegas. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Please don’t do that anymore New Mexicans, but nothing’s going to happen to you. What we want is to protect other New Mexicans who might’ve been exposed.”

The state said it’s discussing using a voluntary smartphone app to help with its contact tracing efforts.

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