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As cases decline, Vermont to end pricey contact tracing

By Liora Engel-Smith/VTDigger

The state is moving away from third-party contact tracing as Omicron cases continue to drop in Vermont. 

Last spring, the Vermont Department of Health outsourced the bulk of Covid-19 contact tracing to AM Trace, a contractor in Leesburg, Virginia. Vermont has paid the company — now called AM — almost $15 million since then.

But as public health policy shifts to living with Covid rather than eradicating it, Vermont expects to wind down its contract with AM soon, state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said on Tuesday, March 8. There’s no set timeline for the process, Kelso said, but the state expects to take over Covid contact tracing eventually, with the help of nine new hires.

“We can’t absorb all the scope of work back to the health department at this point,” Kelso said. 

The news comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised public health departments to move away from contact tracing and investigating every coronavirus case. The new guidelines say the focus should be on prisons, jails, nursing homes and other high-risk settings.

In the early days of the pandemic, identifying every coronavirus exposure was the key to slowing the spread. Every positive case meant several calls to people who may have been exposed. Contact tracers typically maintain regular contact with people in quarantine, offering resources, support and information as needed.

As cases ballooned, health departments struggled to notify people about exposures in time. Vermont faced similar setbacks, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spread in schools and day cares. 

The virus is still circulating in the community, but the state’s testing volume has decreased. Earlier this year, the state Dept. of Education said schools can stop contact tracing. At-home testing largely replaced mass testing sites at state clinics. 

All that means that fewer coronavirus cases get reported to the state, and the demand for contact tracing is down. AM’s Vermont workforce decreased as a result.   

By the end of last week (March 11), the company expected to have just 40 workers dedicated to Vermont contact tracing, according to Kelso. At the height of the pandemic, the state had 200 or more contact tracers on hand, including the AM workers, according to Kelso.

“Going forward, it might be something we turn to again with Covid, but it might not,” she added. “It’s going to depend on how many cases there are, and what’s the clinical picture.”

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