By Associated Press - Friday, July 3, 2020

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A rise in COVID-19 cases is taxing Anchorage’s ability to investigate cases, according to health officials.

The city and state are working to expand contact tracing abilities as local cases increase with people interacting more, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Tracking contacts of people who have tested positive is an important tool in efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Anchorage Health Department Director Natasha Pineda said the city hopes temporarily to hire people to help with contact tracing and in the next month or two hire more public health nurses while working with the state’s new contact tracing system to expand capacity.

She said cases are emerging with more contacts. Earlier in the pandemic, people may have interacted with three to five people, but some now report dozens of contacts, she said.

“In the past week, we’ve had a lot of cases that are associated with locations where there’s well over 100 people that they may have interacted with and we can’t trace or contact any of them,” Pineda said.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

When people go dancing or socialize indoors among large groups and do not maintain distance or wear masks as they go about their activities, “that’s going to cause community spread that’s really hard to manage,” Pineda said.

The state is implementing a contact investigation and tracking database called CommCare that Pineda said could help with Anchorage’s capacity issues.

Tari O’Connor, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health, said it’s taking longer than expected to implement the new system. One thing that’s taken time is transferring case information to the platform, along with hiring and training contact tracers and working with other agencies, she said.

Contact tracers coordinate to provide help to parts of the state where help is needed, she said. “Because we do share resources between regions, we are also kind of having capacity issues statewide in terms of contact tracing,” she said.

The state and city have reduced how often they are following up with contacts, O’Connor and Pineda said.

Dr. Bruce Chandler, medical officer for municipal disease prevention and control in Anchorage, said some people want daily calls and others don’t. Anchorage has begun giving nurses more discretion in how frequently they call and when they might instead provide information for contacting the health department.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.

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