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I-TEAM: AU expert says contact tracing may not help much with 2nd COVID-19 wave

Contact tracing
Contact tracing(WRDW)
Published: Jun. 3, 2020 at 4:41 PM EDT
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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Even before large groups started to gather for protests, experts warned of a possible second wave of coronavirus. But this time, both Georgia and South Carolina will be better prepared with contact tracers.

But Augusta University's chief of infectious diseases says it could be too little, too late.

Protests across the nation are coming at a time when we're supposed to be practicing social distancing.

You could call it a stow-away, as the coronavirus was able to board countless flights before anyone ever suspected.

"In 18 hours, 20 hours, you're in Japan. You're in Tokyo. The problem is -- in 18 or 20 hours, the virus is here too," said Dr. Jose Vazquez of AU Health.

And that's where Vazquez says we missed our first chance to slow its travel.

"I think what we should have first done is shut down the country to all the international travel in January. We waited too long," he said.

Both states set a goal of a thousand contact tracers each by June.

South Carolina has already surpassed that number. Starting with originally 400 staff members, DHEC retained another 1,400 contact tracers through contracts with four private staffing companies.

And according to a job post, Georgia will accept applications for contact tracers until June 28.

But Vazquez has a word of caution.

"We are too late for contact tracing here," he said. "It would have been good to have it a couple of months ago. That's what we should have been doing actually starting out of Albany in Dougherty County, right?"

Two well-attended funerals made that one of the worst hot-spots in the whole country. In fact, 20 percent of patients hospitalized at AU were brought from south Georgia.

"Unless we have a hotspot, contact tracing does us no good," Vazquez said.

But back to the current COVID-19 situation. What does Vazquez think when asked about Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster increasing staff to 1,000 contact tracers?

"Numbers mean nothing unless they're effective, but it makes them sound really good," Vazquez said.

But that's just for round one. Experts from the CDC in Atlanta, all the way to Dr. Anthony Fauci in Washington D.C., have long warned there could be a second wave when businesses started opening back up. More and more people started to venture out into the world again.

Then, protests for social justice took the place of social distance. And it started to happen all over the two-state and the country.

Some worry the close contact could make a second wave worse, which is where the late contact tracers could be right on time. Still, Vazquez says it's not about the numbers.

"We don't need to say, 'Wow, I want 1,000 people because it sounds good, versus I have 250 people, but they're going to areas where I'm seeing an uptick or I'm going to areas where I'm seeing a high volume.'"

There is a possibility, but even if that second wave skips us, pandemics tend to do some traveling every decade or so. Maybe being ready now can help us in the future.

"We weren't prepared," Vazquez said. None of us were prepared. So maybe the next time, we'll have one in another 10 years, we'll be better prepared."

If you're interested in contact tracing, South Carolina is full but Georgia is still taking applications. The jobs are temporary, but full time and pay $15 an hour. You can apply until June 28.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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