More than a million calls, texts made to find Hoosiers for contact tracing

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The work to test the people in President Donald Trump’s circle after his positive COVID-19 diagnosis has shined a new light on contact tracing.

The ability to contact trace all positive cases has been one of the four keys to reopening Indiana.

Right now, more than 1,000 people are trying to contact Hoosiers who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

It’s been a repeated message from State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box, who repeated again on Wednesday, “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to please answer the call or the text.”

There’s been more than a million calls so far this year from state contact tracers reaching out to try to stop the spread.

As of Tuesday, the state has hired 699 people, a number that should hit 900 by the end of October.

“It’s absolutely making a difference,” said Thomas Duszynski, the director of epidemiology education at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI.

The names of people who don’t respond to the initial call, text or even email are passed to local health departments that have almost 350 contact tracers statewide, with Marion County looking to hire 300 more.

Local tracers will call, email and even visit a home to try to reach someone. It’s all strictly confidential. Duszynski helped train those in Marion County.

“I think there’s a level of trust we have to build with each person that we talk to, whether it’s the ill person or the people the ill person exposed,” he said.

Contact tracing is not unique to the coronavirus. It’s done for contagious illnesses, including measles and tuberculosis. However, it’s never been done at this scale, with almost 500,000 phone calls and more than 600,000 text messages in less than five months.

“If you don’t feel well on Monday and by Friday you have positive test results, we’ve already lost a week of time,” Duszynski said.

Indiana is seeing better results than most. Although the success rate has ticked down from 80% to 75%, Box said the nationwide average is about 50%.

“I think these are really good numbers actually,” Duszynski said. “This is challenging work.”

With the president’s circle getting warned and tested, it’s a reminder that even if Indiana is in Stage 5, the pandemic isn’t over.

“We need the public’s cooperation on this,” Duszynski said. “I think we all want to return to some sense of normalcy in the state. The faster we can get this virus under control, or at least minimize transmission, the sooner I think we can get there.”

Due to confidentiality, if you get a voicemail from the state, it will not say why they’re calling. When you return that call, tracers will never ask for personal information like bank account or social security numbers.

News 8 reached out Friday to both the state health department and Maximus, the company with the state contract for tracing, but did not get a response.