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.

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Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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(6) comments

Elizabeth DeForest

Contact tracing in countries which tolerate draconian approaches work well because the people accept the intrusiveness involved. Here in the US, it becomes more challenging for obvious reasons. And the comments here so far show that politization and beefing about the governor is more attention getting than delving into the obstacles which make people squeamish about doing the contract tracing right.

Halting and possibly rolling back the opening of the state could be the difference between life and death. If we can't get everyone masked up and physically distancing, the spread of this deadly virus will escalate. Everyone who can read has access to the same information and yet many choose to ignore it. Is this the governor's fault? No! And getting people to quarantine if they come from outside the state or travel and they choose to ignore this... is that her fault? No!

Contact tracing and enforcing the guidelines and rules set forth by the CDC are met with resistance. Is this her fault? No! Why? Because the overall attitude of Americans is generally speaking selfish and denial runs high. So, yeah. Being truly transparent would entail the ability to accept some uncomfortable truths about REAL mitigation. I can just imagine the howling and complaining.

Get this through your heads: if you do not want to be crushed by the pandemic, certain sacrifices will have to be made. It is not a 'delicate' conversation and one which will scare the pants off most people. It might even involve policing on a greater level than most people are comfortable with. So, backing off the hiring and making sure the contact tracers know what they are up against is probably a good decision.

In the meantime, all of you complainers need to ask yourselves a question: do you want to live and are you willing to do whatever is asked of you to protect yourselves and your community?

Dr. Michael Johnson

"..are you willing to do whatever is asked of you to protect yourselves and your community?" Easy answer, NO! Ask someone who lived in a totalitarian regime, the people "asking" you these things cannot be trusted, and we are living in a totalitarian regime at this moment in NM, one person, arbitrary, capricious, and dictatorial rule, not democracy. Just say NO when asked to give up your Constitutional and civil rights.

Mary Beth Patterson

As of today there is only one Contact Tracing job posted on the state personnel office website, and that is for a Contact Tracing Bureau Chief. Not one other Contact Tracing job posted. It’s especially hard to fill a job that isn’t even posted.

Chris Mechels

Seems like more incompetence, and cover up, by our little Governor. Until mid May, we had been led to believe that the DOH was doing contact tracing just fine. Then, suddenly, the story changed. Now they needed 670 CTs and had only 100, which might explain why the DOH keeps missing all its contact tracing goals.

In this piece we now need 630 CTs, not 670 CTs, in spite of rising case counts. Why?? No explanation. And, over 200 DOH employees are being retrained, plus hiring "contract workers". And, the contact tracers aren't allowed to be interviewed.

This sounds like the usual Michelle muck up, and cover up. As we have seen, in Korea, China, and across Asia, contact tracing is a key component in "managing" the Covid outbreak: which they do well, and we do not at all.

So, after 3 months of our "war" on Covid the DOH was, it seems, seriously understaffed, by about 570, for CTs. Meanwhile, the DOH offices had been shut, and their employees were "teleworking", on full pay, at home. Sounds like a paid vacation to me. Since contact tracing could, obviously, be done by "teleworkers", use those paid vacationers, problem solved, or so it seems.

But Michelle is not a manager, as shown very clearly in her past positions. She is REACTIVE, not PROACTIVE. So, we have hundreds of DOH workers vacationing at home, when they could be doing CT work... Duuhhh. Now, finally, apparently after a Federal contact tracing initiative, we are reassigning DOH employees to CT work. It seems clear this could have been done some time back, but wasn't.

Interviewing the CTs would be interesting, and would likely show a total muck up, so we must not interview them. Transparency is nice, when its not HER transparency.

We really need a new Governor, but the election is a long way off. So, we need our current incompetent to assign the Covid task to a competent, well qualified, manager. Obviously, Michelle is not that person.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Well said, the Guv is also not very intelligent or competent in running anything, nor are her UNM lawyer crony running NMH, or the epidemiology dept. run by an old geriatrics doctor, so what could go wrong? We are seeing it.

Dr. Michael Johnson

We need full transparency of what these people discover about the outbreaks, like the source at gatherings like the BLM and anti-Spanish racist ones. People need to know the danger and death these kind of things are spreading, with the encouragement of the politicians who want to promote their agendas, and hold them accountable. Stop the secrecy!

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