More than two years after launching the COVID-19 contact trace force to help identify people potentially exposed to the coronavirus and slow the spread of disease, the District says it’s winding down operations.
The city’s contact tracing team officially closed shop Thursday, according to a statement to WTOP from D.C. Health.
“The COVID-19 Contact Trace Force has been instrumental in helping slow the spread of COVID 19 in the District of Columbia; however, with COVID infection levels coming down and easier access to at-home testing kits, the COVID-19 Contact Trace Force is no longer as effective or vital a tool as it was during the peak of the pandemic,” the statement said.
The District’s move means laying off 131 employees, according to The Washington Post, which first reported it on Thursday.
Even as the unit is closing shop, the city said its DC CAN digital exposure notification system will remain in place. The digital system sends alerts directly to people’s smartphones if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 who also participates in the system.
D.C. Health also said investigators will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 “and provide consultative services to high-risk facilities.”
The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases appears to be on the wane.
For the week ending June 25, the District saw just under 196 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the results of tests conducted by city-run testing sites. That’s down from more than 356 weekly cases per 100,000 residents for the week ending May 21, which was a recent peak. At the height of the omicron surge last winter, there were more than 866 cases per 100,000 residents.
D.C. Health said the plan to end the trace force was communicated to employees earlier this year and that many of the contact tracers opted to remain in D.C. government positions, including disease-investigation work involving monkeypox at D.C. Health.
“We are deeply grateful to all the DC Health employees who served on the trace force, and we have been working with them to help facilitate their next career choice,” the statement said.
D.C. Health said members of the contact tracing team were given the opportunity to learn about other opportunities and a job fair.
The District’s contact trace force launched in the spring of 2020 with 65 members and grew to several hundred.
The Virginia Department of Health phased out its statewide contact tracing efforts in January, saying the rapid spread of the virus made attempting to investigate every COVID-19 case and tracing all contacts impractical. The health department said it would instead focus tracing efforts on settings such as nursing homes.