The struggling contact tracing system

Marc Daalder reports:

As the number of contacts associated with the Delta outbreak skyrockets past 20,000, the system is struggling to cope.

As of Wednesday morning, less than two-thirds of the 20,363 known contacts had even been “formally contacted”. Just 62 percent had returned a test result. And the list of contacts was only expected to grow.

The target was for 90% or 95% of contacts to be contacted within 48 hours and we are well short.

The system appears to be bursting at the seams and the Government’s only response so far has been to shrug off criticism because this outbreak is bigger than what they had prepared for.

But that ignores four stark warnings that the Government has received over the past 18 months about the state of the contact tracing system. Each of these critical reviews found that the system would struggle to handle a medium-sized outbreak.

One of those reviews was by the now Associate Minister of Health.

The April 2020 review of the contact tracing system by Ayesha Verrall – then a University of Otago epidemiologist, now a Labour MP and Associate Minister of Health with responsibility for public health – recommended the system be able to trace the contacts of 1000 new cases a day. This was one of just three “critical” findings in Verrall’s rapid audit.

Verrall was operating off of British research at the time, which found each case had an average of 36 contacts. She was in essence calling for the system to be able to trace as many as 36,000 contacts each day, envisioning how contact tracing might cope with a large-scale outbreak if elimination failed.

So they’ve had 18 months, and are not even close. The system can’t even cope with 60 new cases a day let alone 1,000.

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