Nearly one year after we first revealed how the state’s tracing program was riddled with concerns and shrouded in secrecy, the Governor declared the program didn’t work. Is he right? Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone reports.
Last month, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis declared the state’s contact tracing program didn’t work.
“I think we have to admit that contact tracing just didn’t work,” he told a crowd during a press conference in Palm Harbor.
“I think it’s largely been ineffective,” he said.
DeSantis’ words come as a bit of a surprise given state leaders had been touting the practice and Florida’s health department has poured tens of millions of dollars into expanding the program which still appears to be shrouded in secrecy.
Health leaders tout contact tracing
From the beginning of the pandemic, the state’s top doctor touted the practice.
“Testing also goes hand in hand with what we call contact tracing,” Dr. Scott Rivkees said during a press conference last May. “This is actually the way we stop the cycle of transmission from person to person,” Rivkees said.
But the centuries-old tool that traces an infected person’s physical contacts to help stop the spread of dangerous diseases soon became a focal point of scrutiny in the state.
Not enough tracers
Contact tracing experts say in order for the practice to be successful, communities need to start early and have enough tracers doing the work. Experts say, at minimum, there should be at least 30 tracers per 100,000 people.
At the time, Florida started touting its contact tracing efforts as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state, the health department had 1,100 tracers working on it. Far below the recommended number needed given Florida’s population is around 21 million people.
“We had to scurry to hire epidemiologists because we didn’t have as man employed as we should have,” said Senator Janet Cruz back in May of 2020.
As the program continued, so did reports of problems. People contacted us to let us know they never received a phone call from a tracer.
Florida Senator Shevrin Jones, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 last summer, told us how he received a phone call, but when the phone disconnected during his conversation with a tracer, the tracer never called him back
“We need a new system,” he said about the state’s contact tracing program at the time.
With cases surging in some local communities, elected leaders including Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, deemed the state’s contact tracing efforts a failure.
“I’ve called it a failure, I’ve called it ineffective, I’ve called it the equivalent of not having a program,” Gelber said.
Shrouded in secrecy
Despite nearly a dozen requests we’ve made over the past 9 months, we still don’t know how many people have been successfully called, traced or even how the state measures its success. Requests for data related to the state’s contact tracing program haven’t been fulfilled and the health department’s spokespeople haven’t answered data-related questions about the program.
This brings us back to the Governor’s recent sentiments.
“Unfortunately, it’s not been something that’s been terribly effective here in Florida or throughout the country,” DeSantis said about contact tracing.
But just how ineffective contact tracing has been in Florida, we don’t know. The state health department nor local county health departments, which do most of the tracing work, continue to not give up details on the data it collected.
The cold shoulder, not just towards us.
Questions about data collected
Dr. Thomas Hladish is a University of Florida research scientist. He was hired by Florida’s Department of Health last spring to help forecast the virus using data. At one point, he said he asked about the state’s contact tracing data.
“At the time I was told the folks involved and responsible for the contact tracing program didn’t have time to talk to us about what they were doing because all of their resources were allocated to containment,” Hladish said.
He agrees with the Governor that contact tracing efforts didn’t successfully stop the virus from spreading. But he still believes in the practice of contact tracing if it’s done properly and thoroughly, which in Florida remains questionable.
Former contact tracer Dalton Price worked for the health department in Volusia County for 4 months last year. By summer, he said, the caseload of people to call was overwhelming.
“When the surge happened in Florida, It was very clear that we [Florida] were not prepared. We were so behind that people, by the time we reached out to them, had already been done with their 10-day or 14-day quarantine,” he said.
Price also explained that to speed up the contact tracing process, the state reduced its 4-page contact tracing questionnaire down to two.
“Success was how quickly we could put this basic information into the system,” he said.
Price also said about 20% of the people he contacted did not want to cooperate with tracing.
This might help why the state has been less than transparent in releasing its contact tracing data.
Still, Price takes issue with the Governor’s conclusions about the program.
“I think, overall, it was successful,” some say
Price believes the program has been a success.
“I don’t agree with DeSantis. I would say the shortcomings, the holes and gaps were largely brought upon by his administration’s response in Florida, which largely denounced the pandemic and infused distrust in the public health response we saw,” said Price.
“I think what the Governor was saying was a blanket statement that was a bit misleading,” said University of South Florida public health expert Dr. Marissa Levine.
Levine wasn’t involved in the state’s contact tracing program but believes contact tracing helped keep the state open, especially at schools.
“Contact tracing helped us see that cases related to school children did not come from the schools themselves, they came from the community,” she said.
Everyone agrees the state started tracing too late, it took too long for it to expands its contact tracing program, and what exactly the state’s data shows remains a big unknown a year and tens of millions of contact tracing dollars later.
Meantime, the state’s contact tracing program continues.