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Mills Announces Plan To Expand Contact Tracing In The State To Limit Coronavirus Spread

Robert F Bukaty
Commuters from Peaks Island arrive on the mainland, Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

Gov. Janet Millsannounced Tuesdaythat her administration is prepared to quadruple the number of people who identify and help isolate people who have been exposed to the coronavirus through what is known as contact tracing.

The Maine Center For Disease Control has been using contact tracing to follow outbreaks since the state confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in March. The agency was able to pinpoint the source of one early cluster of cases to a traveling salesperson.

Contact tracing involves interviewing people infected with the virus about their travel history and interactions with other people, who are then notified and urged to self-isolate. State Health And Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew says the effort to bolster Maine's contact tracing team from 30 staffers to as much as 125 is designed to complement its newly expanded testing capacity.

"We're going to see a climb in the number of tests in the state of Maine, tests per capita, which is why we're doing this now,” Lambrew says. “We don't think we're too late. We have an ability though, if things rise rapidly, to speed this up. Our systems are in place and we're ready to go."

Lambrew says the expansion of contact tracers will be guided by public health metrics, such as a sharp increase in case counts.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says more contact tracers might be needed to track an outbreak in a factory setting involving a lot of people, while fewer tracers might be needed for cases involving household transmission.

Maine has also launched a new reporting tool called the SARA alert system, which has been used by other states to communicate with people diagnosed with COVID-19 and monitor close contacts.

Lambrew says the $7.5 million effort is funded by money made available through a coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in April.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.