CoronavirusNewsThe NorthSider

City needs more COVID-19 contact tracers, committee members say

CITY HALL – St. Louis may have far too few workers to track where those who have tested positive tor COVID-19 may have also infected others, an official of the Missouri Public Health Association told members of a Board of Aldermen committee on Tuesday.

During the meeting, Committee Chair Cara Spencer, who represents the 20th Ward, said it was essential that the city have all the trackers it needs to help trace every infected person down to the last individual he or she has been in contact with.

“We all know that contact tracing is one of the most important and critical pieces in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Spencer said. “While this takes a lot of time, this is an incredibly important issue.”

Bert Malone of the Missouri Public Health Association told the aldermanic Health and Human Services Committee that there should be at least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people, or about 90 for a city the size of St. Louis. However, people in poor areas are at higher risk because of factors including crowded living conditions, pre-existing health problems and lack of access to information and services. Because of the poverty in St. Louis, the city may need as many as 194, he said.

In the meeting, Franda Thomas, an official of the St. Louis Health Department, said the city had 10 full-time tracers.

“Control tracing is the key to managing mitigating and controlling the outbreak that we have now,” Malone said, in a teleconference meeting.

Although the city may be doing all right now with the number of control tracers, things may change as St. Louis moves on, he said. While extra volunteers are helpful, Malone said, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Thomas said, “We talk a lot about contact tracing, but there’s not a firm understanding of what it is.”

In cases in which the disease spreads within nursing homes, it’s easy to track who infected whom, Thomas explained. With stay-at-home orders, the contact list can be fairly short. But as the stay-at-home orders are lifted, there will probably be more cases, she noted.

A close relationship with health agencies in areas adjacent to St. Louis also helps, Thomas said. They can keep track of people from St. Louis who are staying elsewhere. 

She said she had a contact system of getting people under quarantine.

In asking those who have tested positive for COVID-19 where they’ve been, “We are dependent on [their] telling us where they went, and oftentimes they are not good historians.”

So far, things are all right, Thomas said.

“As of right now, I feel like we’re in a good place,” she said.

She may be getting more help. Twenty-eighth Ward Alderwoman Heather Navarro said, “We want to support you in getting resources that you need.”

Asked for a comment, Mayor Lyda Krewson’s Communications Director Jacob Long said, “Well, I would remind you that Ms. Spencer is running for mayor.”

In an email, Long said, “The City is confident in our current ability to conduct contact tracing using trained, experienced full-time staff, medical students, public health interns, and advanced computer technology that checks in with people twice a day and requires responses that include information about their temperatures and symptoms.

“Of course, we continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation constantly and stand ready to add additional staff or resources as those needs are identified.”

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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