LITTLE ROCK — The state will hire 350 more contact tracers to help control the spread of the coronavirus. After the funding is allocated to pay them, it will bring the state’s total to 900.

Contact tracing is a vital part of the public health strategy to control the spread of communicable diseases. When people come down with the disease, a tracer contacts them to help them remember everyone with whom they were in close contact during the period of time when they were infectious.

For Covid-19, that means anyone who came within six feet of the infected individual for at least 15 minutes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the contact tracers should identify all people who were with the infected person from 48 hours before he or she began to feel sick, until that person was isolated.

The next step is for the contact tracer to notify those people that they have been exposed to Covid-19. According to the CDC, the tracers will not reveal the identity of the patient who potentially exposed them.

The tracers also support infected individuals by educating them about their risks and how they should isolate themselves from other people, especially from people with pre-existing health conditions who are particularly vulnerable to the severe symptoms of Covid-19. For example, the virus is more likely to be fatal for people with weak immune systems and elderly people.

When a contact tracer notifies someone that he or she has potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, that person is encouraged to stay home and maintain a distance of six feet from other people, for at least 14 days after their most recent exposure to the infected patient.

Contact tracers do their best to contact potentially infected people by telephone, text or video conference, rather than in person. The CDC notes that the job is labor intensive. Contact tracers must be able to communicate well and have compassion so that they generate trust.

Arkansas already had 200 contact tracers working for the state Health Department when the pandemic began. Relying on federal emergency funds, the state added 350 tracers when public health officials anticipated that the caseload in Arkansas would be about 1,000. However, the active number of cases by late June had exceeded 5,500.

The Secretary of Health said that for every individual in Arkansas with Covid-19, contact tracers have identified three other people who were potentially exposed and who should quarantine themselves.

At one of his daily briefings on Covid-19, the governor announced that he had proposed using about $22 million from the state’s share of federal emergency funding available through the CARES Act.

That is an acronym that stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security. The CARES Act was passed by Congress with overwhelming, bipartisan support and signed into law in late March.

Arkansas is scheduled to receive more than $1.2 billion in federal funding under the CARES Act.

As of last week, 28 firms had bid for a contract to provide the manpower for the additional contact tracers. State officials had narrowed those applicants down to six.

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