North Dakota is seen as a national leader in “contact tracing.”
That’s where someone who contracts the coronavirus identifies people he or she has been in contact with, and those people are called to find out if they have the virus, or if they may need to be in quarantine.
The person tasked with supervising the state’s contact tracing efforts for the coronavirus said the concept is not a new one. Vern Dosch said there have been contact tracers in North Dakota for many years – and the system has worked well.
"When you go from doing 150 tests a day at the state lab, to 2,000, and on our way to 4,000 and higher, it required we step back and re-evaluate the processes, the infrastructure, the IT systems that were in place," Dosch said in an interview "They weren't adequate to handle this type of volume."
Dosch said the first task he had when he came on board was to build a system that replaced fax machines and handwritten notes with a more automated system.
"The system now allows us to have access to do the tracing, and identify where those connections are," Dosch said. "We're trying to stay just a little ahead of the spread of the virus."
Dosch said the goal is to "draw a fence" around the progression of the virus.
Dosch said 352 people are trained to do the job – and there are now 77 actively working on it. He said a number are nurses and other medical professionals who had been laid off from jobs at the hospitals, after they temporarily ceased doing elective surgeries.
But he said some of those may be going back to their original jobs.
"While we have a pretty good pipeline right now, from the universities, as new nurses are graduating, we do expect we will lose some of these trackers, as they return to their real day jobs," Dosch said.
So, Dosch said there has been a “pause” in hiring tracers, as the program assesses the needs going forward. And he said the other unknown is how reopening businesses in North Dakota will affect things going forward.
"A lot of people are saying we expect to see a bit of an increase in the number of positive cases," Dosch said. "We're not certain as to the extent of that. But that certainly is going to affect it -- if cases go up, the number of tracers we will need also goes up."