Strategy Includes Recruitment of Hundreds of Contact Tracers, Increased Public Testing Capacity, and Continued Tracking of the Disease and of Healthcare Capacity
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Today, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a three-point framework designed to contain the spread of COVID-19 as a phased approach to reopen the economy across Texas begins to ramp up. The framework contains three key components, including increased tracing of positive cases, enhanced testing capacity, and continued efforts to ensure there is enough healthcare capacity to weather a spike in cases.
“If the economy will begin opening May 1st, in order to keep it open, it’s vital we follow a smart containment strategy that ensures our systems are prepared to identify, test, and treat those who are sick,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “Achieving containment that is sustainable will be a tall order given the May 1st timeline, and we cannot afford to erase the gains our community has sacrificed so much to achieve. Harris County will do everything possible to preserve what we have accomplished thus far, and this framework will help us get there.”
The framework, developed with input from public health officials and policy experts, will work to expand the County’s ability to identify, test, and treat residents. It will do so by focusing on enhancing County capacity to identify and isolate new cases by tracing the contacts of infected individuals, testing higher-risk community members, and closely tracking key indicators of disease spread and hospital capacity. The goal is to ensure that COVID-19 cases are contained, and that hospital admissions continue to decline.
As part of the plan, Harris County will immediately begin recruiting hundreds of new contact tracers to identify and support isolation efforts. The contact tracers will work to locate everyone in contact with infected residents and ensure they are tested and/or self-isolating for at least 14 days. At the same time, Harris County will continue to expand the availability of testing for anyone who has reason to believe that they may be infected, including close contacts of individuals who test positive, and other higher-risk groups.
The three key components of the framework include:
Harris County will continue to increase testing capacity in coordination with public and private sources to ensure the availability of widespread, affordable, and efficient testing.
As part of this effort, yesterday the County announced a “strike team” to deploy testing to congregate settings like nursing homes along with two additional pop-up testing locations. These testing sites add to the existing two pop-up locations and two fixed testing locations in Katy and in Baytown. Beginning this week, the County will have the ability to test up to 1,600 residents per day, and will continue to advocate for more testing resources.
In order to test all new cases and their contacts with existing resources, it is imperative that the number of new cases remain at below 100 per day.
Harris County will exponentially expand its epidemiological workforce, which has already been scaled up from pre-COVID levels. As part of the effort, Harris County will recruit about 300 contact tracers, with the ability to expand as needed. Potential sources of additional workforce include temporary hires, contractors, existing Harris County staff, and volunteers, all of whom will be hired by qualified epidemiologists and other staff.
Harris County will continue to work with healthcare providers and other partners to ensure that healthcare capacity is in place as part of planning for another wave of infections. While the curve of hospital admissions has not decreased to the safest level recommended by local healthcare experts, the county will work to maximize resources given the current circumstances.
In addition, Harris County will continue to track the rate of infection and hospitalization to understand the potential progression of COVID-19 and to gauge the possibility of a spike in cases. This information will inform advocacy efforts as well as additional actions the County may take to restrict or loosen public health measures to protect the health and safety of our community. Harris County is working with several research organizations as part of this effort. The goal is to also continue tracking total hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators, and other metrics to support our planning work.