El Paso County Wasting Millions in Haphazard Contact Tracing

Photo Credit: UK Telegraph

We are nearly two years into COVID-19, and things are still chaotic in El Paso County. We’ve all heard the term “contact tracing.” El Paso County receives a hefty sum specifically for contact tracing. So, what is contact tracing, and where is the money coming from to do it? Is contact tracing being done for all citizens who test positive? Our investigation says it’s not.

To be clear, we don’t think it’s the government’s business to contact trace individuals. You might ask then, why do we care that they aren’t doing it thoroughly?

We care because the County is collecting a large sum of local, state, and federal money —that is money you and I pay for in our taxes— for something they aren’t doing. Additionally, the County Health Medical Director reports that COVID positive patients aren’t even responding to contact from the El Paso County Public Health (EPCPH) when the county attempts to do contact tracing. KRDO reports that public distrust of government is high, and people are reluctant to help with contact tracing.

This brings us to a good question: what’s the purpose of contact tracing at this point? Now that people are using self-testing rapid tests at home, the county can’t possibly be capturing even a fraction of the positive cases that are out there.

Taxpayer funds are pouring into EPCPH coffers. The 2022 budget will be nearly $30,000,000. EPCPH’s Case Investigation and Contact Tracing Team, specifically, received $951,000 in 2021 and will receive $999,108 in 2022.  The World Health Organization defines COVID-19 contact tracing as, “the process of identifying, assessing, and managing people who have been exposed to someone who has been infected with the COVID-19 virus.”

Based on some tips from El Paso County residents, we checked in with many others we knew, who have tested positive for COVID-19 at various times over the past 21 months. We weren’t encouraged by this informal survey.

The Contact Tracing Team had only reached out to one-third of our surveyed COVID-19 positive patients over the past 21 months. The one-third that were contacted were not interested enough to follow-up with EPCPH to go through the process of contact tracing. Why would they be?

One person we spoke to received a letter 5 days after his positive result in October 2021. The Contact Tracing Team failed to reach out to his spouse, though, after she tested positive 2 days later at the same testing site. Take a look at the letter he received, as well as the isolation instructions here. The letter states the Contact Tracing Team had been trying to reach the man —not about his extended car warranty although it has the same tone— but because they wanted to talk to him about his recent lab result. Even though the letter said they had been trying to reach him by phone, he denies any phone calls, emails, or texts from EPCPH. Again, the wife from this couple received nothing. People in our informal survey reveals similar results. People appear to have been haphazardly contacted.

Based upon our informal survey, we conclude that EPCPH is not making an attempt to contact all patients who test positive for COVID-19, and even when EPCPH did text or send a letter, there is little patient interest in communicating with public health officials.

Here is the “Contact Tracing Workflow Process” information sheet that El Paso County shared with us here. This is the process they are supposed to follow. Based on our survey, this was not being followed. So are they squandering the millions?

We asked where the money comes from. According to EPCPH Public Information Officer Michelle Beyrle, EPCPH does not levy or impose taxes directly. Its primary revenue streams are from pass-through funds from the state of Colorado and El Paso County. The funds that are passed to EPCPH originate from local, state, and federal taxes. So, although EPCPH isn’t a taxing agency, it runs on our tax money.

Some of that money comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), a state agency. What does CDPHE expect of Colorado counties in regards to contact tracing, when it gives money for that purpose? See the Colorado Protocols for Case Investigation, Contact Tracing, and Monitoring here. The protocol states, “all confirmed and probable cases should be investigated by public health following their protocol”. The word “should” is the key word there. It’s like they know the task for which they are doling out large sums of taxpayer money is going to be haphazard, but they’re okay with it.

This is how careful they are with your money.

One County Commissioner has been sounding the alarm for months about the overly large budget allocated to EPCPH. While her comments weren’t specifically about contact tracing, Commissioner Carrie Geitner expressed her belief that EPCPH has become too big and too powerful, and that it isn’t being honest with citizens. She asked for the small sum of $150,000 of the $30,000,000 budget to be allocated to roads or crime instead of EPCPH, when the BOCC was voting on the EPCPH budget in December. No other commissioners supported her request to reallocate the money. See Commissioner Geitner’s comments about that here.

It’s time for El Paso County to reconsider the practice of contact tracing, and reallocate the money to something that is an actual benefit to the citizens. Or how about the County just gives that money back to us instead?

Contact your county commissioners and ask them what alternatives they and EPCPH are considering to replace the current contact tracing process. Right now, it’s evident the current plan is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Cami Bremer  CamiBremer@elpasoco.com

Carrie Geitner  CarrieGeitner@elpasoco.com

Longinos Gonzalez  LonginosGonzalezJr@elpasoco.com

Stan Vanderwerf  stanvanderwerf@elpasoco.com

Holly Williams   HollyWilliams@elpasoco.com

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