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Editorial: As NM masks up, the state needs to speed up contact tracing

New Mexicans are on the receiving end of almost weekly lectures from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others about how they aren’t doing enough to curb the spread of COVID-19. Among the transgressions: Too much driving around; not enough staying home, mask wearing or social distancing; too many large gatherings in parks and elsewhere; etc.

Fair enough. These are all legitimate areas of concern the public should take to heart to curb the spread of a virus that as of Tuesday had infected more than 19,700 people in New Mexico, claimed 626 lives and kept many businesses closed and schools shuttered for in-person learning.

But as it turns out, state government isn’t doing such a great job itself when it comes to a key component of curbing the spread – getting test results back quickly and contact tracing so people can be notified to isolate if they have a positive test or quarantine if they have been exposed.

“The window of opportunity to find those exposed before they themselves become infectious is pretty quick,” said Emily Gurley, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They (contact tracers) have a very short time to be optimally effective.”

No argument from the state on that point. In fact Lujan Grisham’s administration adopted “gating criteria” that lists testing and contact tracing as factors to consider for the state to safely reopen. The state target is 24 hours or less to contact a person who tests positive and 36 hours or less for someone exposed.

And the state was close to those metrics in June, contacting those who tested positive in a median time of 28 hours. By July 17 the median time for that category had jumped to 81 hours. For those exposed, the median time went from 56 hours in June to 108 hours on July 17.

Those are not just bigger windows for spreading the virus, they are open garage doors.

Dr. David Scrase, the governor’s lead medical adviser on the pandemic response team, said he had heard of one case in which someone had to wait 13 days for a test result. “When it takes you longer to get the test results than you would have spent in isolation, you kind of have defeated the purpose of getting tested,” he said.

Scrase attributed the ballooning contact tracing times to increased volume as the number of tests and new cases soared in the last month.

The state has a contract with an outside company to operate a contact tracing call center at a cost of more than $12.5 million. The contract says up to 600 tracers could be hired (only 250 are on board, according to national group Covid Act Now). But according to a story by Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild published Monday, two months after the contract was signed the state Personnel Office was seeking to hire two top Department of Health administrators for the state’s contact tracing effort and still needs a contract tracing bureau chief to work with the state epidemiologist, the Department of Health and the governor to develop a regional plan for contact tracing here, according to the state’s job listing.

Four months into a global pandemic, the fact that kind of position was still vacant last week is a head scratcher, given the importance of this effort. Are more resources needed here? Could we recruit state employees to lend a hand – those whose jobs are on hold but whose paychecks aren’t? Other states have brought in the National Guard to help with contact tracing.

Contact tracing is a decades-old public health practice for addressing communicable diseases. Scrase says rapid action to pinpoint those who may be infected before they develop symptoms is crucial in curbing spread. Gurley said in an online presentation that “every case requires action to be sure they’re limiting their contact with people and … changing their behavior.”

All of which makes sense. Just like limiting outings, social distancing and wearing a mask.

While the governor is right to push those issues, she has only limited control over how well people behave. But the state does have control over its contact tracing. And it needs to step up its game.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.