The Kansas Department of Health and Environment will halt contact tracing for COVID-19 next month, declaring the efforts "futile" amid rising infection rates and declining participation from those infected.
The move, announced Tuesday, is part of an effort to move toward an endemic response to the coronavirus, though it comes at a time when more individuals are being infected than at any point during the pandemic and hospitals report being pushed to the brink.
Contact tracing is paired with case investigation and both serve as core actions in responding to an infectious disease outbreak. A worker determines who an infected individual was near, then notifies those people and informs them to be on the lookout for COVID-19 symptoms.
KDHE Secretary Janet Stanek said the announcement was weeks in the making, as contact tracing has become "very difficult" in a school setting and the population at large, noting "people are being diagnosed by the hundreds."
In recent days, the state has routinely been reporting over 4,000 and even 5,000 COVID-19 cases per day. Jan. 11 saw 5,485 cases announced in Kansas, the highest number since the pandemic began in March of 2020.
Schools will continue contact tracing if possible but will have the option to discontinue the practice. The agency will re-evaluate the move in 30 days.
But KDHE will halt its own contact tracing beginning Feb. 1. For months, the agency has hired its own staff and ramped up its contact tracing and case investigation to help counties that were overwhelmed with cases.
Members of the public, however, have become increasingly reluctant to participate in the voluntary practice, Stanek said.
"We are not finding the public is as willing to share information," Stanek said. "So efforts related to contact tracing end up being a little futile at this point."
The agency's current contact tracing staff will be converted to contact investigators, KDHE said, meaning they will work to inform those who tested positive of their COVID-19 status.
Members of the public, meanwhile, will be asked to notify their own close contacts if they become infected. If an individual works in a congregate setting, such as a school, correctional facility or long-term care facility, KDHE will notify the employer, who will be charged with taking the matter from there.
The move comes as Kansas plans a pivot to a longer-lasting approach to what COVID-19 will look like, expecting the virus to become endemic, or regularly occurring in society.
It was expected contact tracing and case investigation would become less important during that response, though experts initially expected the change would happen over a longer period of time.
Other states, most notably Michigan and New York, have pulled back on contact tracing, citing the latest surge in cases. And Seaman Unified School District 345 said Monday they would also suspend their tracing work.
County health departments would also no longer be required to contact trace, according to Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, something which was cheered by overwhelmed counties.
"No one was keeping up with it so getting the official permission from the state saying there is no expectation to continue contact tracing went over really well," he said. "Everyone was like 'We just can't do it.'"
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: KDHE to halt contact tracing next month amid COVID-19 surge