SARATOGA COUNTY — With COVID-19 case numbers in the county surging in recent weeks, Saratoga County is planning to hire an additional 25 contact tracers to handle a volume of contact investigations that threatens to overwhelm county Public Health Services.
The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved the hiring of up to an additional 25 contract tracers at a rate of $25 per hour, bringing the total number of tracers the county has authorized hiring from 50 to 75. The board also authorized hiring an additional five tracing supervisors, who would earn $30 per hour.
Funding for the positions will come from a $1 million allocation supervisors approved last spring to pay for the county’s response to COVID-19 — but county officials are also hoping for a state reimbursement.
The decision to hire more tracers — tracers seek out contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus to warn them to quarantine or take precautions — comes as the county has seen its number of active cases grow more than five-fold since the middle of November, setting several new daily records for number of cases confirmed.
Because of the number of cases being reported each day, county officials last week said they were having to prioritize investigations based on which would have the most public health benefit, rather than investigate every case. Some tracers are working evenings and weekends.
As of Tuesday, the county has 1,267 active COVID-19 cases, according to information provided by the Saratoga County Public Health Northway Corridor Task Force, and the seven-day average for new cases reported was 102 per day. On Nov. 16, there were 258 active cases, and the average number of new cases per day was 23.
There also have been seven additional deaths in the last month, bringing the total of county residents who have died to 28. Late Wednesday, the state reported another death in the county, bringing the total to 29.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported the county had 117 new confirmed cases the day before. The total has been above 100 on six of the last seven days, according to state data. There have been 3,716 cases since March.
Saratoga County did not see as large of an outbreak last spring as Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties did, but is posting similar numbers of Schenectady County this fall. General community spread as well as Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings are believed to have led to a large percentage of the new cases. Now there’s concern that gatherings for Christmas, New Year’s and other seasonal holidays could lead to new outbreaks.
Clifton Park, Halfmoon and the city of Saratoga Springs — the county’s population centers — have had the most COVID cases, but every community, even the sparsely populated towns around Great Sacandaga Lake, have had verified cases, according to the county Health Department.
Dr. Daniel Kuhles, the county’s recently hired health commissioner, said the county’s most recent hiring effort brought in 130 applications, but in the end, only 10 people were hired and stayed, while six others are in training. “It’s a skillset that needs to be learned,” he said.
In an interview last week, Kuhles noted that each tracing investigation is different: Some investigations are quick and easy, and some are difficult, depending on the amount of cooperation the tracer receives, and the availability of contact information for those being traced.
Schenectady County has about 50 contact tracers and has seen the number of daily cases increasing. The county reported 90 new cases on Wednesday, but it had 143 the day before.
Schenectady County Public Health Services has recently added both new hires and shifted staff from other county departments to its contact tracing team, according to county spokeswoman Erin Roberts.
“While SCPHS believes they currently have enough contact tracing capacity to meet the rapid rise in cases, it is important to note that our public health system can become overwhelmed,” Roberts wrote in an email Wednesday.
“While at times it may seem like our actions impact only ourselves and those directly around us, right now more than any other time during this crisis we need our residents to act as protectors and follow safety precautions which include wearing a mask, physically distancing and avoiding gatherings to help our community get through this tough time,” Roberts added.