Utah’s contact tracers are getting stonewalled, hurting efforts to slow the coronavirus outbreak

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel Salas working at a COVID-19 testing station at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

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With record-high coronavirus caseloads, Utah’s contact tracers are getting overwhelmed — and a Salt Lake County epidemiologist says that infected patients are increasingly refusing to participate, in part out of protest against what they believe is a manufactured threat.

“Some people are still very much convinced this is a conspiracy theory, that it is not a thing. And so they won’t cooperate,” said Annie George, an epidemiologist with Salt Lake County.

At the beginning of the pandemic, patients often were reluctant to disclose people they were in contact with because they were sheepish that they hadn’t strictly followed social distancing recommendations.

“How some people view it is that they should be ashamed that they contracted the virus,” George said. “That’s not the case at all. We’re not calling to reprimand you. We’re not putting the blame on you. We’re just trying to get information to figure out how we can help stop this from infecting others.”

But now that businesses and schools have largely reopened, contact tracers are encountering more deliberate resistance — comparable to a push among some Utahns to discourage COVID-19 testing out of resistance against public health restrictions.

That’s something George said she’s encountered, too.

“We’ve had parents that won’t allow their kids to be tested," George said. “We’ve had school administrators as well as coaches … that have told kids not to get tested so that they can continue to play.”

Now some who do get tested are refusing to speak to contact tracers to prevent them from finding other infected people, George said. “It’s very disheartening, honestly."

Meanwhile, the sheer volume of cases is forcing public health officials to rethink how to approach the time-consuming process of contact tracing. With 1,144 new coronavirus cases reported Wednesday, Utah’s weeklong average of new diagnoses reached 1,204 new daily test results — a new record.

Salt Lake County has enlisted all of its public health workers, from public relations staff to restaurant inspectors, to call patients who test positive, said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the county health department.

“When a contact tracer gets about five new cases every day or so, it’s very hard to stay on top of it,” George said. “It reaches a point where it’s not effective because … it doesn’t do you any good if you’re calling them after they’ve already been off of quarantine for a while.”

The county already has scaled back the number of people contact tracers call for each case, Rupp said. About three months ago, contact tracers began asking patients to notify any acquaintances they may have exposed and asking employers to notify any affected co-workers. That allowed contact tracers to focus on members of the patient’s household — and in 80% of cases, the county is reaching the whole household within 24 hours.

“We will not be stopping contact tracing at any foreseeable time,” Rupp said.

But the county may have to scale back the time invested in each patient — about two hours for one interview and related data collection, George said.

“I’m not sure exactly what our leadership will decide to do,” George said. “I know they’re trying to come up with some sort of a modification. … Our poor contact tracers are burned out.”

Utah’s health care providers also have reported fatigue — and hospitalizations reached a new record high Wednesday, with 259 Utah patients concurrently admitted, the Utah Department of Health reported. On average, 246 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week.

In total, 4,460 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 77 from Wednesday — by far the largest single-day increase since the pandemic began.

During a Wednesday news conference , Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said the hospitals in the community are close to being overrun.

“Right now, I fear our hospitals are potentially facing a pretty serious crisis," she said.

The case surge in September, she said, started with younger people who are less likely to get seriously sick from the virus. But it has since spread to older individuals, and many of them have needed critical care. Of those older than 60 in the county, she said, 31% who have been infected have gone to the hospital.

Additionally, nearly two-thirds of the intensive care unit beds are full, Wilson said, and “our emergency rooms are packed.”

Gary Edwards, the county health department director added: “Our health care system is just not an infinite resource.”

Since the beginning of September, the county has had 42 people over the age of 60 die from the virus.

Utah’s death toll, overall, rose to 527 on Wednesday, with five fatalities reported since Tuesday:

  • A Utah County man, age 65 to 84.

  • A Salt Lake County man, age 65 to 84.

  • A Salt Lake County man, age 45 to 64.

  • A Cache County man, older than 85.

  • A Wasatch County woman, older than 85.

As part of an effort to protect older adults, Salt Lake County has closed all senior centers to in-person visits.

But Wilson announced Wednesday that they will now be launching new virtual senior centers where residents can connect to family online. The hope is that they’ll stay socially connected but won’t be exposed to the virus.

Meanwhile, although Utah County’s cases were below their peak of about two weeks ago, the county still was reporting the most rapid rate of new cases, with an average of 52 new daily cases per 100,000 residents for the past week — a figure that has risen in recent days. Orem’s northern neighborhoods, the parts of Provo outside of Brigham Young University’s campus, and Saratoga Springs reported the highest infection rates of Utah’s communities, according to state data.

Salt Lake County was at near-peak levels of new infections, with 44 new daily cases per 100,000 people. Draper posted the worst infection rates in the county, with Herriman, Riverton and Bluffdale close behind.

Infections continued to explode in other parts of Utah. Record-high case rates were reported in Tooele County as well as the Central Utah, Southeast Utah and Weber-Morgan health districts. And Central Utah posted its highest single-day case increase.

Meanwhile, more than 96% of Utahns live in communities and neighborhoods with more than 101 new infection per 100,000 residents in the past week — a rate federal health officials have called the “red zone.” As of Sept. 1, only about 25% of Utahns lived in communities with rates that high.

For the past week, 13.9% of all tests have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said.

— Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.