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In this Wednesday, May 13, 2020 photo, Maria Fernanda works on contact tracing at the Florida Dept. of Health in Miami-Dade County, during the new coronavirus pandemic, in Doral, Fla. In state after state, the local health departments charged with doing the detective work of running down the contacts of coronavirus patients are falling well short of the number of people needed to do the job. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Georgia Department of Public Health hopes to have more than 1,000 contact tracers in the next few weeks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in the state.

Contact tracing is used to identify and mitigate hotspots of infection to help prevent further spread of the virus.

The contact tracers interview people who test positive for the virus and gain information about their contacts with other people in recent weeks. Then they try to find and speak to those people, many of whom likely don't know they had been in contact with someone who later tested positive.

Georgia has about 250 contact tracers throughout the state. The tracers have talked to more than 3,800 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and been able to identify nearly 13,000 people who were in contact with those who tested positive.

Of the 250 tracers across the state, 25 of them are in the 10 counties that make up the Northwest Health District, which includes Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon and Walker counties.

Logan Bass, spokesman with the Northwest Health District, said the department is in the process of hiring more tracers as testing demand remains high.

The 25 tracers include current district public health employees, state staff assigned to the Northwest Health District and new COVID-19-specific hires brought on once the outbreak started.

Bass said the department is tracking how many contacts the 10 tracers in Northwest Georgia have made, but that information wasn't available this week. He said the department needs anywhere from seven to 20 tracers for every 100,000 people.

There are about 670,000 people in the 10-county region, meaning the health department would need a minimum of 47 tracers and a maximum of 200.

"Based on current workload, we believe the lower estimate is more realistic, but that could change," Bass said.

When the department of health is notified of a confirmed COVID-19 case, that person is interviewed. People who have had close contact with them, starting two days before they became ill, are identified and contacted by the health department by phone or text.

Those people are then told to closely monitor their symptoms and to try to stay at home for 14 days after their last contact with the infected person.

People who develop symptoms during the course of their monitoring will be asked to isolate themselves at home and will be referred for COVID-19 testing or to seek medical care if necessary.

All information collected by the department of health is given voluntarily and kept confidential.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said her department brought on an additional 230 people in April to help with critical contact tracing of people exposed to the coronavirus. Tennessee has "well above 300" tracers working now, Piercey said.

Piercey's department operates health departments in 89 of the state's 95 counties. Tennessee's six biggest counties — Hamilton, Knox, Davidson, Shelby, Rutherford and Williamson — run their own. Her contact tracers are largely dedicated to serving residents in the rural counties, she said.

Georgia is in the middle of training about 200 new contact tracers and 70 medical students and graduate candidates who joined the state health department in the past three weeks.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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