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North Dakota contact tracing resumes with cluster focus

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Newly resumed contact tracing in North Dakota will focus on identifying clusters of COVID-19 infections.

Finding close contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus resumed Dec. 22, after increasing COVID-19 caseloads overwhelmed contact tracers in October. North Dakota's Department of Health in mid-October asked people who tested positive to do their own contact tracing, but prioritized tracing for K-12 schools, colleges and universities and health care facilities.

Now the work has resumed with about 470 contact tracers from the Department of Health, University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University and local public health units, including Fargo and Grand Forks.

Previously, tracers encountered widespread noncompliance or resistance to their calls. State Disease Control Director Kirby Kruger said he hasn't heard anything from staff indicating compliance has changed, though it's too soon to compare to before. More data entry will help measure noncompliance, he said. 

The tracing process is about the same as before, Kruger said. A tracing team will be starting next week on identifying clusters, or groups of people infected from the same event.

Kruger said identifying clusters will more quickly and systematically help health officials find people who are infected, especially as active cases have been declining since November.

"I think that we built a nice team, it took a long time to build that team and if we can devote some resources to that, we felt that this is the time to do it," he said. 

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health and Custer Health are not participating in full contact tracing. Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health is focusing on COVID-19 testing efforts and vaccinations, community health nurse manager Theresa Schmidt said. Custer Health does school contact tracing, and also is focusing on testing and vaccinations, Director of Nursing Jodie Fetsch said.

Testing has generally declined in December, with as few as 1,530 tests processed Tuesday, after a single-day high of 14,654 tests reported Nov. 14.

Kruger attributes the testing drop-off to the holiday season and people busying themselves with other activities, as well as pandemic fatigue.

"I think our job is we need to make sure that people can be tested where they need to be tested at," he said, also highlighting the availability of rapid antigen testing, which is offered in Bismarck from 3-7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the Galleria area in the Gateway Mall.

People exposed mask-to-mask are exempt from a 14-day quarantine, Kruger said. He and Gov. Doug Burgum announced the quarantine guidance in early October as an incentive to get more people to wear face masks.

Asymptomatic close contacts may test out of quarantine after seven days, Kruger said. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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