Gov. Asa Hutchinson is looking to substantially increase the number of contact tracing resources in Arkansas.
He is aiming to double the number of contact tracers that state officials had planned to add to the current capacity. In total, Hutchinson wants to double the number of new contact tracers from 350 to 700.
According to Hutchinson, the need for contact tracing has been prompted by the increases in the number of COVID-19 cases throughout Arkansas. As of Wednesday, June 24, there have been 17,375 cumulative cases with 697 new cases over the past 24 hours. The numbers have grown dramatically in Arkansas recently. State officials have reported 595 new cases and 522 new cases during 24-hour-periods on Tuesday and Monday, respectively.
“Whenever you have this level of new cases, that challenges the resources of our contact tracing, which is a fundamental part of our strategy. We have to be able to do that effectively. We have to put the resources into the contact tracing, the testing and the isolation,” he said.
The increases in the case numbers have made the contact tracing resources and workers “insufficient,” according to Hutchinson. “It’s going to be essential whether it’s now or it’s in the fall. Hopefully, that will be more than sufficient, but right now we have an insufficient capacity to do the job that we need in terms of contact tracing,” he said.
Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith echoed this statement, saying that the department is currently understaffed in its contact tracing efforts. He emphasized that there is not a backlog of cases but that the department is performing more tests with fewer individuals than it had planned.
“As of this morning, we do not have a backlog on contact tracing, but we’re trying to do contact tracing with much fewer staff than are needed. In fact, our 350 request to the CARES Act Steering Committee was based on the assumption that we would have about 1,000 active cases. Well, we have over 5,00 active cases now. We’ve become very efficient in what we’re doing but we need more,” Smith said.
Doubling the number of workers will cost approximately $22 million. Hutchinson gave this as a rough figure and said that he would be asking the CARES Act Steering Committee and the Arkansas General Assembly for additional funding.
“That is absolutely essential as we look at cases that come up or increase in different parts in the state. We have to have these resources to follow up with our contact tracing,” he said.
When asked if securing an additional 350 individuals to serve as contact tracers would be difficult, Hutchinson conceded that it would likely be challenging. The initial 350 contact tracers are expected to be onboarded in July but Hutchinson did not have a timeframe for the second batch of workers.
“We’re going to be working with our procurement team to make sure that we do this in the right way. Working with the CARES Act Steering Committee to get the funding. We’re hoping, I believe it is, by mid-July to have the first set of 350 contact tracers on board. For doubling that amount, we’re going to have to look at that timeframe. We’ll have more information later, but we have set that in motion today,” he said.