New Mexico remains short of its goal to significantly boost the number of workers carrying out contact tracing efforts aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in mid-May the state needed a minimum of 670 workers to perform the duties but had only slightly more than 100 at the time. Six weeks later, the state Department of Health said it needs a total of about 630 contract tracers and now has a staff of about 280.
The majority of those workers — 230 of them — are Department of Health employees who have been reassigned to contact tracing, while 50 of them are new hires. The state is still looking to quickly fill 150 more temporary contact tracing positions, agency spokesman David Morgan said.
“There’s no question we need more tracers to allow as many of our employees to return to their regular duties as we can, but viral spread is really going to be the determinate for how many tracers we hire and when,” Morgan said.
Contact tracing is a disease-control strategy used to track people who have been in close contact with carriers of the novel coronavirus so that they can be isolated and officials can limit the spread of the virus.
The efforts — which typically include in-depth interviews with people who have tested positive and others with whom they have come in contact — have become particularly important nationwide as states have relaxed their social-distancing measures and reopened their economies.
Few details have been released about the state’s contact tracing program since the COVID-19 outbreak began. The New Mexican has made multiple requests to the Department of Health to interview contact tracers, and those requests have been denied.
New Mexico’s congressional delegation announced last month the state would receive $77.3 million in federal government funding for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts. The money is part of $25 billion in funding for testing, health care providers and small businesses passed by Congress in April.
Two Democratic U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer of New York and Patty Murray of Washington, said in a letter Sunday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that the Trump administration had so far “failed to disburse” $14 billion of that funding, jeopardizing the success of contact tracing efforts.
“The country’s current contact tracing workforce is inadequate to deal with the new spike in COVID-19 cases,” Schumer and Murray wrote.
The New Mexico Department of Health confirmed, however, the state already has received its portion of the funds. It was unable to say how much of the money has been spent so far.
While the agency hasn’t reached its hiring goals, it has received a slew of applications for the contact tracing positions.
After the State Personnel Office posted openings for the job on its website in May, it received some 1,800 applications over one weekend, according to Pam Coleman, the office’s director.
“I cannot imagine a more popular application process than that weekend,” Coleman said. “I think people are very keen on it.”
After that, the office took down the postings because the government already had enough applications for review, she said.
On Wednesday, there was only one open position related to the effort posted on the State Personnel Office website, a posting for a “Contact Tracing Bureau Chief.”
Kay Vinson, a local teacher, said she saw several open positions on the site in May, but when she returned a couple of days later, they had been taken down.
“I was unable to submit my résumé within a couple of days because ‘the position no longer existed,’ ” Vinson said. “And neither did any of the others at that point. All the positions just disappeared.”
Vinson said she was particularly interested in the role after she completed an online course, titled COVID-19 Contact Tracing, from Johns Hopkins University.
Asked why the state has not brought on more people, Morgan said its hiring process takes time and that the agency focused first on hiring supervisors.
“It’s a state government job,” Morgan said Wednesday. “So, there is a hiring process that needs to be done and that does take time.”
He also said the tracers’ work has become more efficient through the use of software.
“While we do definitely need more contact tracers, we also over these three months have evolved greatly in how we’re able to do it,” Morgan said.
More tracers would be particularly helpful, though, so agency employees doing the job temporarily can return to their regular duties, he said.
“The entire Department of Health, under these pandemic conditions, is in a state of high stress,” he said.
The agency said the first group of new hires was trained last week and will begin work Monday. A second group of 15 new hires will start training Monday.
The training includes lessons on “contact tracing procedures,” learning about patient privacy protection, and how to use the computer software and access agency computers, Morgan said.
Morgan also said the pace at which the state fills the open positions depends on how the number of COVID-19 cases evolves.
New Mexico announced 207 new positive COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total to 11,192. Five additional deaths were reported, for a total of 485.