Houston commits $200 million to more coronavirus testing, contact tracing

The city of Houston has committed to allocate $200 million of its CARES Act funding toward testing and contact tracing. (Courtesy HTV)
The city of Houston has committed to allocate $200 million of its CARES Act funding toward testing and contact tracing. (Courtesy HTV)

The city of Houston has committed to allocate $200 million of its CARES Act funding toward testing and contact tracing. (Courtesy HTV)

The Houston Health Department plans to operate 24 new coronavirus testing sites and deploy 300 contact tracers by the end of the month, city officials announced May 7.

The new testing sites, a combination of fixed and mobile locations, will first target underserved communities in the city where poor access to health care and testing is causing higher rates of severe cases and deaths per capita.

Sites will relocate however is needed to serve as much of the city as possible, Houston coronavirus recovery czar Marvin Odum said.

To contain positive cases, contact tracers hired through the Houston Health Department will work to identify and contact those who may have come in contact with an infected individual.

The spread of new cases can be mitigated by the cooperation of those who test positive or are exposed, Houston Emergency Medicine Director Dr. David Persse said.


"They will need to follow the advice of the public health folks who call them so they don't spread the virus," Persse said of the effort. "At the end of the day, it's the individual's responsibility. No matter how big we make the army, we can't sit outside of your house and make sure you follow the rules."

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the Houston Health Department employed 45 contact tracers to limit the spread of other infectious diseases, Houston Health Department Director Steve Williams said. As the outbreak began, the department repurposed current health department employees to the effort, bringing the total number to 125.

As statewide restrictions on business closures ease, Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city will need to monitor case counts to avoid another spike in infections.

"My concern is that if by moving too quickly ... we are not going to manage this virus very well," Turner said. "Testing, contact tracing and individual responsibility, hopefully, will help so that we don't face what we faced in March and April and we don't have to enforce work-safe orders again."

The new sites and contact tracers will cost about $200 million and will be paid for through the city's $404 million allocation of federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Turner said. The city committed another $15 million of the same funding on a rent relief program approved by Houston City Council on May 6.

In similar efforts, Harris County announced an initiative April 28 to hire 300 new contact tracers, and 10 Houston-area health centers received federal grant funding May 7 to expand testing operations.

Editor's note: this post has been updated for clarity.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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