WRAL Investigates

Unlike some other states, NC doesn't share contact tracing data

Posted September 17, 2020 5:59 p.m. EDT
Updated September 17, 2020 7:25 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina provides county- and ZIP code-level data on new coronavirus cases, but public health experts say that isn't enough to know where and how the virus is really spreading in different communities.

The answers to how and why can be found in contact tracing results, they say, but unlike several other states, North Carolina health officials don't provide that information.

"The contact tracing, we can’t see anything. We don’t have any access to see how that’s going at all," epidemiologist and RTI International researcher Pia MacDonald said.

Contact tracing can help slow the spread of coronavirus by identifying people who were in close contact with a positive patient.

While North Carolina ramped up its contact tracing army, it remains behind the curve because of the continuing high number of daily cases – the seven-day average remains over 1,000 – sporadic delays in testing and people who refuse to cooperate with health workers.

"In theory, when contact tracing is working and you know that it’s effectively helping, that your outbreak is shrinking, your new cases are coming from contacts of known cases," MacDonald said. "We don’t see data on how many cases are identified through contact tracing."

Still, State Epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore argues that contact tracing is working in North Carolina.

"There are several different purposes of contact tracing," Moore said. "There are some limitations because of the nature of the virus."

The fact that people who show no symptoms of being sick can spread the virus makes it more difficult to catch early on, he said. Also, the state’s daily caseload is problematic, so reducing that number is important to get the job of contact tracing done right.

"[We need to] get to a point when we have less transmission going on in the state, and we’re really able to focus in on a smaller number of cases," Moore said.

Despite the challenges, MacDonald argues that contact tracing should produce more information on how and where the virus is spreading.

"Right now, when we look at the data, we only see the number of cases a day," she said. "We don’t know if they come from known clusters, unknown clusters, were they identified through random testing?"

Several states do release more thorough information:

  • Oregon releases a weekly report with a graph that shows where cases are coming from, including households, outbreaks and a category called "sporadic," which are cases that couldn’t be linked to another case. The state also releases information on what percentage of infected people are called by contact tracers within the first 24 hours.
  • Colorado has a color-coded graph that breaks down setting types for all outbreaks, including restaurants, bars and stores.
  • In Vermont, more than 80 percent of the cases are linked to immediate or extended family members.

Moore points out that North Carolina identifies virus clusters in nursing homes, prisons and educational settings.

"It’s not everything because, you know, there’s clusters happening all the time," he said. "Everyone’s getting it from somewhere, so we have clusters that are in a whole variety of settings."

But that hasn’t stopped Colorado from releasing a database of every outbreak or cluster in the state, allowing people to see if there are hot spots in stores people frequent.

MacDonald said such information would help in the virus fight in North Carolina.

"A lot of that information is important for us as individuals to understand the extent of the outbreak in our state and in our communities, and we’re really left in the dark on a lot of that stuff," she said.

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