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Virginia health officials phase out contact tracing efforts because of rapid COVID-19 spread

While most people who catch the omicron variant have a mild illness, it's causing a very high number of cases and is straining the health care system in Virginia.

NORFOLK, Va. — The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) announced it is phasing out contact tracing efforts and will focus on follow-up of outbreaks and cases in high-risk settings.

The changes are being made because of how fast the omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading. While most people who catch the omicron variant have a mild illness, it's causing a very high number of cases and is straining the health care system in Virginia.

Beforehand, health officials tried to investigate every case of COVID-19 and trace all contacts. Now, VDH said it isn't possible nor fruitful to do that.

Deputy Director of the Office of Epidemiology, Dr. Laurie Forlano said the department is “phasing it out” because of the current ease with which COVID spreads. 

“It is just so transmissible -- contagious -- much more so than previous variants. The speed at which it travels is hard to keep up with," Dr. Forlano said. “So it’s time to step back. That doesn’t mean we won’t be doing anything, anymore.”  

Instead of contact tracing, Dr. Forlano said the department will focus on outbreaks in "more vulnerable settings" like prisons, schools, and long-term care facilities.  

“It’s hard to remember two years ago but we really had some... just some awful scenarios in nursing homes and larger workplaces, et cetera, and we don’t want to go back there," she said.

The department said contact tracing has played an important role in the COVID-19 response, especially when vaccines and treatments weren't available. 

According to the department, public health staff completed over 750,000 case investigations, notified over 400,000 close contacts, and responded to over 6,500 outbreaks since September 2020.

“While our contact tracing program really had a very, very substantial role in controlling the pandemic and saved really thousands and thousands of lives probably, we’re at a point in the pandemic now where that’s really not a tool that works as effectively as we would like it to," Dr. Forlano said.

The department said the new direction makes the most sense now, but potential variants could require health officials to adapt COVID-19 prevention strategies.

Dr. Forlano said it’s up to you to do your own contact tracing. If you test positive, you should reach out to everyone you’ve been in contact with recently.

“Virginians should not wait for a call or necessarily expect a call to have a public health official tell you what steps to take to stop the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

For people who think they are ill with COVID-19, the department encourages them to get tested, stay home and notify contacts.

The department is also encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect against serious illness and hospitalizations.

To find a vaccine or an appointment at a Community Vaccination Center (CVC) or another location, visit vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682).