BISMARCK — Kirby Kruger, the disease control director for the North Dakota Department of Health, says handing the responsibility of contact tracing back to the people who contract the coronavirus has been on the table since the summer.

"It's a big ask," he said.

With the exception of people in health care settings, K-12 students and people in higher education, anyone who tests positive will now need to come up with their own list of unmasked, close contacts from the past 10 days and contact them.

Until earlier this week, that was a job for public health workers.

"We felt there was a better use for our resources and focusing on the case notifications," Kruger said.

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The state has about 450 contact tracers on the books. Many of them are part-time due to budget constraints. The state's goal is to contact people who test positive within 24 hours.

"When we can identify close contacts and refer them in for testing, it's a pretty significant number that eventually test positive. I don't have the number off the top of my head," he said.

Kruger says other states have also relied on people who test positive to reach out to their close contacts.

"We feel the people who will want to cooperate with us will continue to cooperate with us. Even in the prior process if you tested positive for COVID-19, I have to rely on you to be forthcoming on that, I can't make you tell me who your contacts are," Kruger said.

Another reason for the change in strategy was, unlike early on in the pandemic, it became nearly impossible to pinpoint where someone picked up the virus.

"A majority of the people we interviewed we were not able to trace back to a particular case or a particular cluster; it's community spread, Kruger said.

The state is hiring contact tracers, he added. They get paid between $20 and $24 an hour.

People interested in applying can do so on the state's website.