Report from Louisiana: Contact tracing the new normal?

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – I was quite interested to read John Ruberry’s post on this blog this weekend in which he discusses the impact of Covid-19 in Illinois under the leadership of Governor J.B. Pritzker.  It all sounds so very familiar.

In Louisiana, we are waiting once again for Governor John Bel Edwards to move Louisiana to Phase One and reopen businesses. We expected this announcement two weeks ago, but Edwards surprised us all by extending our stay at home order until May 16, infuriating business owners, citizens, and a large number of Republican lawmakers.

As of last week, Louisiana’s unemployment rate was around 22%.

One of the components for reopening the state that Edwards will discuss today will be Contact Tracing.  Right now, Louisiana has 70 people trained for contact tracing which does NOT meet suggested guidelines, but Edwards plans to hire hundreds more.

Many are obviously suspicious about the concept of contact tracing and what information will be gathered, not to mention who will be gathering it. According to Governor Edwards:

The state’s plan considers people who have been in close contact with someone if they are:

Household members of the person who tested positive.

Intimate partners of the person who tested positive.

People who have provided care to you in the household or outside.

Anyone who has been in close contact – that is defined as someone who has been within six feet or closer for a time period greater than 15 minutes.

In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is taking this a step further by requiring shopkeepers to keep records of everyone who shops, or comes into, their stores.

It is all very “Big Brother” and many are suspicious of giving information to a contact tracer. One new contact tracer described her first day this way:

Some people are a little suspicious. Some people hang up after I ask for their date of birth and address. I understand that, the mistrust of the government, having grown up under communism. But it’s too bad. I feel like they can benefit from this information: how to quarantine themselves, how they can protect their families, and what kind of support is available. Probably 50%, maybe 60%, of the contacts that I call on my shift don’t answer. Some don’t have voicemail set up. But I leave a message when I can, and several people called me back yesterday.

NPR details how contact tracing works and how it has been used in other countries:

The idea behind this public health strategy is simple: Keep the virus in check by having teams of public health workers — epidemiologists, nurses, trained citizens — identify each new positive case, track down their contacts and help both the sick person and those who were exposed isolate themselves.

This is the strategy that’s been proven to work in other countries, including China, South Korea, and Germany. For it to work in the U.S., states and local communities will need ample testing and they’ll need to expand their public health workforce. By a lot.

And while Google and Apple would love to jump in and get a piece of this governmental financial pie, high tech is not really what works in this case:

It’s not super complicated to understand why technologists are having a hard time getting traction. Traditional contact tracing has been honed over decades of response to disease outbreaks. Officials ask patients where they’ve been and whom they’ve been near; they then suggest those people get tested for the disease and make sure they quarantine, if necessary. Quickly identifying and segregating people carrying the virus can slow the spread of a communicable disease. “It works by building a human bond between two people,” the patient and the contact tracer, says Tom Frieden, the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of of Health and Mental Hygiene. “It means actually talking to someone and answering their questions, addressing their needs and concerns, and building, earning, and maintaining their trust and confidentiality.”

Contact tracing is not a new concept and has been used widely in many other outbreaks, but perhaps never to this extent.

At this point, we are all ready to get back to normal, or new normal, whatever that is. We broke out of quarantine as soon as Texas opened their border to Louisiana again and went to eat in a restaurant. We had to wait outside (in a crowd) for an hour to get in because they can only operate at 25% capacity. There were no salt or pepper shakers on the tables, nothing that has to be repeatedly sanitized. Menus are all paper and disposable. There were a lot of obvious changes.

The new normal will include a lot of changes that make us uncomfortable and perhaps suspicious. But by and large, America is ready to go back to work.

Let’s do this.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and Twitter @paustin110.

One thought on “Report from Louisiana: Contact tracing the new normal?

  1. EFFECTIVE Contact Tracing will require orders of magnitude more contract tracers and computing power than the proponents of contact tracing are saying. You would need something on the order of the Chinese Social Credit system to make it work. Are we ready for ‘Lives of Other People’ to be played out here in America? Everybody a snitch? And for what? To try and stop the spread of this disease. This isn’t leprosy or some other difficult-to-contract disease where contract tracing might be useful, this is a pretty contagious disease that spreads fairly rapidly. We may be approaching herd immunity levels right now. As for mortality, it looks like it isn’t even going to approach the HK flu of 1968-1969. This is Garrison Keillor’s Fearmonger Shop gone national.

    Resources to combat COVID-19 should be restricted to hospitals and old folks homes. That is where the vast majority of fatalities are happening. Anything else is a waste of time. This bug is being used to destroy the middle class and make a voting majority government dependent.

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