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N.H. Has Resumed Universal Contact Tracing For New COVID-19 Cases, Officials Say

A sign outside King Kone in Merrimack reads: "Dr Fauci Needs You / Wear A Mask"
Emily Quirk, NHPR
Even as cases decline, state officials say community spread remains high and precautions — including masking and social distancing — are still critical.";s:

After scaling back contact tracing efforts last November amid surging cases, New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services says it has resumed investigating all new COVID-19 infections.

“We resumed contact tracing all cases on Feb. 2,” DHHS Communications Director Jake Leon wrote in an email. “Cases are still prioritized as before, so cases from high-risk groups take priority, but we are once again reaching out to everyone.”

New Hampshire health officials stopped doing universal contact tracing in November, focusing instead on high-risk populations: people under age 18 or over age 65, those living in communal settings or affiliated with health care facilities, communities of color, and those connected to clusters or outbreaks.

(Earlier coverage: As N.H. Scales Back Contact Tracing, Experts Say Other Measures Needed To Mitigate Virus)

As NHPR reported at the time, officials said the rising number of close contacts for each new case placed strain on the program, as did the low response rate on their efforts to reach out to those contacts.

"Contact tracing is part of a containment strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19, but it is one and only one layer or intervention for helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan said at the Nov. 12 press conference where the change was announced. “As community transmission increases, it becomes a less effective strategy of identifying and breaking the chains of transmission." 

Health officials now say declining case volume has made it possible for them to start doing case investigations and contact tracing for all newly reported infections. Dr. Beth Daly, Chief of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, told NHPR this week that this change in strategy “has not been a big pivot” because the state was still trying to gather information on all cases even when it wasn’t conducting full contact tracing investigations on each one.

“We were still looking, reviewing the information we had on the person in order to do that prioritization, making sure that we had complete information entered into our electronic system,” Daly said. “So now those people are getting the additional step of a phone call, and we're adding that back in as we have the capacity to do it.”

While the state resumes a more comprehensive contact tracing program, it is not yet conducting universal case monitoring: That involves daily phone calls for people in isolation and calls every other day for people in quarantine. Health officials say the case load remains too high right now to keep up with universal monitoring at this time.

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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