BISMARCK — North Dakota is now asking residents who test positive for COVID-19 to inform their own close contacts of the diagnosis as a recent surge in new cases of the virus has overloaded the state's contact tracing operation.
The state Department of Health sent out a tweet Tuesday, Oct. 20, saying contact tracers are "experiencing a backlog of COVID-19 case investigations, causing a delay in calls." The announcement advised residents who have tested positive for the virus to fill in as contact tracers themselves by telling their own close contacts to get tested.
The backlog means North Dakotans who recently tested positive have been waiting an average of three days to learn of their diagnosis instead of the usual one day.
The state announced late Tuesday night that 50 soldiers from the North Dakota National Guard will be shifted from notifying close contacts to calling residents who have tested positive.
Officials are also developing an automated system for notifying positive residents, according to a news release. In the past, news of positive tests results was delivered exclusively by employees working on the contact tracing operation.
North Dakota's contact tracing operations for K-12 schools, universities and health care settings will continue as normal.
Gov. Doug Burgum, who has frequently held up the operation as a success of his administration's pandemic response, said reshaping the state's contact tracing strategy is necessary to "prioritize what’s most important" amid the mounting case load.
“This temporary situation required an immediate and significant shift in resources to provide results in a timely manner to individuals who test positive to protect their health and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Burgum said in the news release.
The health department's change of course comes as the state announced a pandemic-high 1,036 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. North Dakota has reported by far the most COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the nation over the last week.
Please be advised: NDDoH and local public health units are currently experiencing a backlog of COVID-19 case investigations, causing a delay in calls. If you have tested positive for COVID-19, please isolate and inform any close contacts you've had that they should get tested! pic.twitter.com/pj4f8OeFFJ— ND Department of Health (@NDDOH) October 20, 2020
The contact tracing process, which lies at the foundation of disease control, is meant to help officials track the spread of the virus and isolate residents who test positive before they further transmit the illness. Health officials say the already arduous practice has been made more difficult in the state by a minority of residents who have refused to quarantine after contact tracers identified them as close contacts of a positive case.
North Dakota disease control chief Kirby Kruger said last week there are about 400 employees from the health department, public universities, the National Guard and the private sector working to contact residents who test positive and their close contacts. Kruger said the state's mostly part-time contact tracers had until recently been able to keep up with a goal to reach 85% of newly diagnosed residents within 24 hours, but rising case counts had proved a challenge.
Kruger did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication Tuesday.
Another 25 contact tracers in Cass County and 20 in Grand Forks County do most of the case investigation for their respective areas on behalf of local public health agencies.
Fargo Cass Public Health spokeswoman Holly Scott said the agency also has a backlog of cases and recently asked the health department for help with the burden. Scott said she didn't know how many cases sit unassigned to contact tracers or when the agency's load became too much to lift. She added that the agency hasn't heard anything about a change in strategy from the state.
Grand Forks Public Health took the step of asking residents to act as contact tracers a day before the state. The unconventional move became necessary as the workload outpaced the number of case investigators, said Michael Dulitz, Grand Forks County's COVID-19 data director.
Grand Forks Herald reporter Hannah Shirley contributed to this story.