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Former Arkansas Surgeon General Says More Can Be Done To Improve Contact Tracing

Dr. Joe Thompson
Arkansas Center for Health Improvement

Former Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson praised recent efforts by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state health officials to curb the spread of COVID-19, but said even more steps need to be taken.

Thompson, who is now president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, spent the 4th of July weekend at Greer’s Ferry Lake in north Arkansas. Heading into the holiday weekend, many officials expressed concern that Arkansans would ignore suggestions to practice social distancing and wear masks while gathering in large groups to celebrate. But Thompson said he was encouraged by his experiences.

"I saw a change from Memorial Day weekend. I saw more people having distance, I saw fewer boats crowded together, I saw a few masks, but I did not see everybody being consistent with their masks, so I think as a state, clearly the numbers show that we are not in control of this virus," Thompson said. "We need more people statewide to do their part to gain control."

Last week, the governor signed an executive order allowing Arkansas cities to enact citywide ordinances requiring face masks in public. Violating the ordinance would carry no penalty, however. In their daily coronavirus press briefings, Hutchinson, Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith and others have consistently worn masks when not speaking. Those efforts are helpful, Thompson said.

"The steps the governor took on Friday to unleash the mayors and their communities, I think that’s one step. I think we may need the Health Department to start being more public about where COVID-positive individuals have been."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contact tracing involves interviewing those who have tested positive for COVID-19 to identify locations they visited and people they were in contact with during the period of time in which they may have been infectious. Those potential contacts are then asked to monitor themselves for symptoms, get tested and possibly self-quarantine for two weeks. The ADH’s website further clarifies that anyone who spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of an infected person is considered a potential contact.

In April, more than a month after the first confirmed case in Arkansas, the state implemented an automated alert system which allows for texts, phone message, or emails to be sent to people who have identified themselves as at-risk for infection due to exposure to a COVID-positive person. Additionally, Department of Health has said it plans to hire up to 350 people specifically for contact tracing.

Currently, the state does not publish details of potential infections. This is an area where Thompson sees the potential for improvement, noting the actions of health officials in Missouri.

"When you look at the Springfield Health Department, their contact tracing is providing a different level of information than our contact tracing," Thompson said. "I worry that the questions that are being asked in Arkansas are to validate that the opening up of specific directives did not cause a problem, as opposed to the opposite, which is let’s use contact tracing to try to solve a problem."

Springfield’s "Public Exposure Notices" on its website list the date, time, and location of an infected person, as well as whether they were wearing a mask. Identities are kept anonymous. This level of detail would help Arkansans know whether or not they should get tested, or self-quarantine. Thompson said these are the types of extra efforts Arkansas needs to implement to get the coronavirus under control.

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