The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, October 20, 2020 1:00 am

Contact tracers spread thin

100 usual for size of Allen County; 8 on staff

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Allen County's top defenses against the spread of COVID-19 are straining to keep pace with an increasing number of new cases. 

Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter told the board of health during a meeting Monday that a county this size should have at least 100 contact tracers – workers who identify people who might have come into contact with an infected person. Allen County has eight, and that number includes an additional tracer added recently to the team officials have called “small but mighty.”

Mindy Waldron, Allen County Department of Health administrator, said she is struggling to find ways to rest contact tracers who so far have investigated nearly 8,000 cases since the pandemic took hold in northeast Indiana early this year. 

“The big news in the past week and a half is we've had a big increase in cases,” Sutter said. “The current caseload is putting a big strain on us.”

The county reported 61 new cases Monday, and that came days after a record-setting 138 new cases were reported Friday. 

Nearly 7,900 people in Allen County have been infected, and COVID-19 has killed 214 patients.

The Indiana State Department of Health reported 1,589 new cases Monday and 23 new deaths. More than 3,700 Hoosiers have so far died from the virus. 

There were another 233 probable deaths attributed to COVID-19 statewide, based on clinical diagnoses in patients for whom no positive test is on record. 

Doctors and public health experts have said for months that measures such as frequent hand-washing, physical distancing and wearing masks can prevent the spread of the virus. There is good news on the mask-wearing front in Allen County, according to results of a study presented at the meeting. 

Students at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University Fort Wayne in August and September observed nearly 3,600 customers at seven local “big box/grocery stores.” About 88% of shoppers observed wore masks, complying with state guidelines, researchers found. 

Ashley Robertson, an IU assistant professor who oversaw the study, said the numbers of shoppers observed is significant. 

“We can truly extrapolate from that number to the county as a whole,” she said. 

Robertson declined to name the stores, and information shown to the board did not provide a location. Compliance rates ranged from around 80% to slightly more than 90% at the businesses, according to the report. 

Shoppers who visited stores in the afternoon – about 43% – were more likely to comply with mask guidelines than those who shopped in the morning – 21.5%. 

Differences in compliance rates by gender and race and ethnicity were not statistically significant, Robertson said. 

Dr. William Pond, board president, praised researchers for a report based on observations rather than relying on subjects to self-report. 

“This is a great study,” he said.

At a glance

New COVID-19 cases in area counties (with totals in parentheses):

Adams: 9 (464)

Allen: 61 (7,852)

DeKalb: 40 (701) 

Huntington: 5 (369)

Kosciusko: 39 (1,731)

LaGrange: 5 (766) 

Noble: 13 (1,113)

Steuben: 9 (588) 

Wabash: 9 (385)

Wells: 8 (412)

Whitley: 7 (431)

Sources: Indiana State Department of Health; Allen County Department of Health; DeKalb County Health Department

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