Action News Jax Investigates: The State of Contact Tracing in Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida has committed tens of millions of dollars to contact tracing but a few weeks ago, Governor DeSantis said it doesn’t work. Action News Jax has spent months looking into contact tracing efforts in the state and Duval County and found there wasn’t a clear answer on what success looks like.

During a news conference on March 17, 2021, Governor DeSantis said, “I think we have to admit that contact tracing has just not worked.” The governor made that statement a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and after of and tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on contact tracing efforts. DeSantis also said, “There’s not a place you cans say it’s really bent the epidemic curve downward.”

More than two million people in Florida have been infected with COVID-19. Duval County teacher Chris Guerrieri’s wife caught COVID in December 2020. He tested positive soon after. Guerrieri told Action News Jax, “I immediately called my principal on both times and let them know. The department of health didn’t get in touch with me until the Wednesday, which is two days later.”

Guerrieri said he provided information about who he had been around including his two paraprofessionals. “I said, look, I’m very concerned about my ladies. I don’t want them getting sick. They both have underlying health conditions. They’re both elderly. Can you please take care of them? And then the department of health promptly did absolutely nothing. It did nothing. Didn’t talk to them. Didn’t check on them. Did absolutely nothing. And that was infuriating,” Guerrieri said. Action News Jax has received calls and emails from others over the last year, raising similar concerns about contact tracing efforts.

In September 2020, we reached out to the Florida Department of Health with a number of questions including how many cases contact tracers were closing. A state spokesperson said, “The protocol used by contact tracers is to reach out to cases three times, at different times of the day over at least two days. We do have instances when the contact information is incorrect, the case does not answer the phone or the case declines an interview.” When Action News Jax followed up with the state to try to get more specific numbers on the progress contact tracers were making, we were told to reach out to counties directly. So we did. Last December, we asked the Duval Health Department about the requirements of contract tracers locally, to find out if those expectations were being met. Several weeks later, a spokesperson said, “Specific requirements related to contact tracing involve demonstrating good customer service, providing health education, and collecting detailed information related to close contacts. Because the amount of information provided and collected varies per person, there is not a daily requirement.”

The spokesperson also said, “At the height of this pandemic, it was difficult to reach everyone in a timely manner.” The Duval Health spokesperson said they could not provide Action News Jax with the number of people contact tracers had successfully reached, or the number of outstanding cases - but said that contact tracers face a number of challenges including: results not being reported to the Department of Health, patients giving inaccurate information or none at all, and the volume of cases exceeding resources. Action News Jax Medical Expert Dr. Michelle Aquino has been on the frontlines treating COVID-19 patients at Baptist Health throughout the pandemic. Dr. Aquino said, “I think that our contact tracing here and it’s not just us, I think all across the United States has been hit or miss. Right. And part of the reason is because who’s running the contact tracing.” Dr. Aquino added, “You need money because not only do you need a manpower, you need a lot of manpower. And then not only manpower, you’re also going to need people to buy into the program and say, okay, I’m open to this.” Dr. Aquino said she believes contract tracing is an important tool. “I think contact tracing when done correctly, definitely does stop the spread of disease. It does,” said Dr. Aquino. Guerrieri said he believes the failed state of contact tracing in the state starts from the top down and said he is concerned it’s come at an even greater cost.

“If we would’ve emulated countries that did it much better than we did, we could have done so much better. We could have saved lives. We could have prevented people from getting ill, but we chose not to,” said Guerrieri. Based on job openings posted online, contact tracers can make $20 to $25 an hour on average. You can find more information on COVID-19 testing and vaccines in your community here: https://www.actionnewsjax.com/coronavirus-vaccine/

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