2 South Florida mayors criticize state’s contact tracing program, as former tracer speaks out

(WSVN) - The number of COVID cases are now declining, but in Miami-Dade County alone, the pandemic has taken 2,600 lives and caused lingering economic devastation. Could much of this loss have been prevented by the Florida Department of Health? 7’s Kevin Ozebek investigates.

It was mid-July.

Diana Diaz, Today in Florida anchor: “Florida smashing a national record.”

Cases of COVID-19 were surging.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez: “If something is not done to dramatically alter our course, we could be in a more dire situation than what we’re in.”

But when South Florida was the epicenter of the pandemic, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, and Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat, say the state’s contact tracing program missed the mark.

Kevin Ozebek: “So, on an A-F scale, what would you grade them?”

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber: “I would grade our effort, obviously, an F.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez: “I’d probably give them a D or a C, simply because of effort, but in terms of the actual performance, it has not been there.”

Contact tracer 1 (dramatization): “Have you stayed in quarantine today?”

In a pandemic, contact tracers call those who test positive. Ideally, they give crucial information.

Contact tracer 2 (dramatization): “Please self-isolate.”

And get crucial information.

Contact tracer 1 (dramatization): “Who did you spend time with before testing positive?”

So they can contact others who may have been exposed to stop them from infecting anyone else.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber: “So the idea is, you control the outbreak, you cabinet, you stop it from spreading further, and that’s the key.”

But Mayor Gelber says contact tracing was wholly inadequate.

He gave 7News a Department of Health graph which shows contract tracing between July 9th to July 22nd. Miami-Dade County was seeing around 2,000 to 3,000 new infections daily.

But the Health Department’s contact tracers were speaking to, on average, just under 500 newly infected people a day.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber: “As soon as we saw all this, we immediately called on the governor to provide a proper number of contact tracers to Dade County. If you look at the standards, we should have had well over 800, probably 1,000, so obviously, we were set up for failure.”

But back in mid-July, the Health Department told 7News it had about 300 contact tracers working in Miami-Dade County.

We asked to meet some, but that request was denied.

However, we did find a contact tracer who in July worked in Central Florida, and her story raises even more questions.

Adrienne Barker, former contact tracer: “I don’t have a lot of talent, Kevin, but the one talent I have is I’m likable, and so, for that, I thought I would make a great contact tracer.”

Adrienne Barker of Daytona Beach showed us the pay stubs to prove she was a contact tracer working for a staffing company used by the State Department of Health.

Kevin Ozebek: “In your four weeks technically on the job, did you ever make one phone call to someone who is COVID-19 positive?”

Adrienne Barker: “No, nothing.”

Kevin Ozebek: “Not one?”

Adrienne Barker: “Not one.”

During her month on the job in Brevard and Seminole counties, Adrienne said, she begged to make calls but was never given a single assignment.

Adrienne Barker: “There is definitely a lack of accountability and oversight, and it’s serious. I was getting paid $23 an hour.”

Back here in Miami-Dade County, after our requests for an interview with the State Health Department were not granted…

Kevin Ozebek: “Hi this is Kevin Ozebek.”

We went to the administration office.

Kevin Ozebek: “Is there anyone we can talk to right now about the contact tracing program?”

No luck, but in an email, the Department of Health’s Miami-Dade office tells us, now in the county, “…we have 600 personnel working on … contact tracing efforts … At this time, we are achieving our goal by reaching out to 100% of reported cases if they have provided the correct contact information.”

But the mayors say damage has already been done.

Kevin Ozebek: “If there was a better contact tracing program in this county during the height of this pandemic, would we have been in better shape economically?”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez: “There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt about it.”

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber: “When we screw this up, people die.”

7 Investigates also asked the Florida Department of Health if contact tracers not getting any assignments is a prevalent issue. Officials said they’re said “not aware of any issues in Miami-Dade” County.


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