Overwhelmed contact tracers forced to prioritize cases until staffing increase in August

You might be over it, but the pandemic is not over. That's why officials are trying to educate the public about the importance of contact tracing to contain disease outbreaks -- and still encouraging everyone to take personal precautions.

However, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Hillsborough County, medical experts say we are past the point of relying solely on contact tracing to get COVID-19 under control.

“We can’t just ignore it, deny it, or brush it aside. It’s here, we need to deal with it,” explained Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health and Family Medicine.

The Department of Health in Hillsborough County currently has 83 case investigators and contact tracers, and in August it expects to have about 240 staffers focused on coronavirus.

Ideally, a contact tracer will get in touch with someone exposed to the virus before they start infecting other people, thereby breaking the chain of spread.

RELATED: Florida reports highest single-day jump in COVID-19 deaths

“The whole idea is to prevent larger outbreaks, to contain it before it gets to be a bigger issue,” Levine said.  “We’re in a mode right now with COVID where it’s not contained. This is widespread community transmission.”

Because so many people are testing positive each day, the Hillsborough County health department contact tracers can’t keep up. Director Dr. Douglas Holt says employees are first sorting every name by age and ZIP code and then are forced to prioritize who they focus their efforts on since the department is understaffed.

“We really are at a point where contact tracing alone is not the way to go here. We need everybody doing their part, and that means physical distancing, wearing masks when you’re out, and hygienic practices,” said Levine.

RELATED: Herd immunity without a COVID-19 vaccine not a goal we should want to achieve

According to Levine, if people do what they can to prevent becoming infected, the pandemic can be contained on a local level.

“We’ll be able to identify cases and potential outbreaks early and prevent another spike, so we really need the community’s participation now to get past this spike,” Levine said.

If you feel sick:

The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to covid-19@flhealth.gov. Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

CORONAVIRUS IN FLORIDA: What you need to know

AROUND THE WORLD: CoronavirusNOW.com

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