13 Investigates: City, county contact tracing program shows dramatic improvement

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A 13 Investigates review of the city of Houston's multi-million dollar contact tracing effort shows vast improvement in a program the health department is counting on to save lives.

This summer, 13 Investigates first looked at Houston's contact tracing program and found issues. The project needed staffers, computers, a place to work, but what was needed most was timely notification of new cases. In mid-July, just 53% of cases sent to Houston contact tracers were actionable, meaning less than 10 days from diagnosis. Any older than that and it is presumed a patient may have passed it on to someone else, and that someone else also passed it on to another new patient. The trace had gone cold.

READ MORE: 13 Investigates First Look at Houston Contact Tracing

The program is showing signs of improvement. As of this week, the number of actionable cases is up to 85%.

"That's absolutely critical," Houston Health Department's Beau Mitts said.

Harris County Public Health also has also seen improvements in recent months as 267 people work on the county's program in response to COVID-19.

The program costs about $2.5 million a month and over the last month has had about a 70% success rate. The success rate is due, in part, to a text messaging system. The county says that system is utilized when someone tests positive for COVID-19 but case investigators are unable to reach the individual the same day they learn about the positive test result.

"Over the last few months (since July 10th) our contact tracers have averaged 480 phone calls per day. These calls can last anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes and all information provided from individuals is private. Subject matter includes contact tracing, case investigation, and routinely providing guidance and assistance for those who are in need," Harris County Public Health said in a statement.

The city says when you test positive, a contact tracer is supposed to start finding out who you met with, talked to and live with. It could be dozens of people, and tracking all of those people down takes an army of tracers. In the city of Houston, there are 254 new employees assigned to the project on top of another 90 that were already at the health department when the pandemic hit.

The city budgeted more than $26 million to pay for it. So far, the city has spent $13,709,528 on tracing alone. Much of it is taken up by the army of tracers working in a makeshift call center inside Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center.

The program still relies on a computer survey of patients as a first outreach. City statistics show that is still ineffective. Few patients respond, and even fewer offer names of people they may have been in close contact with. Statistics on the electronic tracing effort still fall well below the city's goals.

However, the human tracers are enjoying much better success. This summer, as the program was ramping up, contact tracers were only able to complete interviews with 75% of the patients they learned about. As of earlier this week, that figure is up to 92%.

The ultimate goal of the program is to find out who coronavirus-infected Houstonians may have been in close contact with. And that too is showing progress. The program's goal is to learn the names and contact information of two contacts per new COVID-19 patient. In July, on average, contact tracers were only able to gather 0.6 contacts per patient. Today that number is exceeding the city's goal and sits at 2.14 contacts per new case.

Mitts attributes much of the success to being fully staffed and trained up. The city now has 349 employees assigned to the effort. As he walks the cavernous contact tracing floor at the convention center, the sound of hundreds of voices is the sound of lives being saved.

"It's pretty impressive just to hear all of the activity," Mitts told 13 Investigates. "All of the individuals working, talking, having conversations, and it's such a huge space."

Mitts reminds Houstonians if they get a call or a text or email from the health department, they need to respond.

The Houston Health Department passed on this info so you know where the contacts may be coming from:

When you receive an initial call from a contact tracer at the Houston Health Department, the number displayed will be 713-853-8700. If you receive a call on a landline phone, the caller ID displayed will be Houston Health 713-853-8700.

As a follow up to an initial call, a contact tracer from the Houston Health Department (HHD) may call or text you from their HHD mobile phone, which could be from many different phone numbers.

Automated text messages from Houston Health Department contact tracers will come from 35134, 73940 or 39242.

Contact tracing automated email assessments from the Houston Health Department will come from houstonhealthdepartment@qualtrics-survey.com.

If you receive a call, text or email regarding contact tracing and you are unsure if it's legitimate, please call the Houston Health Department COVID-19 Call Center at 832-393-4220.

Contact tracers will never ask for your social security number, bank information or credit card number.

Information gathered during the contact tracing process is not used for any other purpose.

For additional info, please visit the Houston Health Department's website.

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