Amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, state health officials say they are running out of money and resources for contact tracing, a key part of the public health response to prevent new infections.

"We have as many cases to work with now [as] we had back in May," said Margaret Kelly, deputy commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health.

The agency will ask the Legislature for $35 million to continue the work of interviewing those who test positive for the new coronavirus and their close contacts.

About 700 state employees are doing the work, many of them reassigned from their jobs at the Health Department and other state agencies.

But with no end in sight for the pandemic, the state wants to hire outside vendors to take over the contact tracing duties to free up state employees.

"Those staff are reassigned from other work and they really need to get back to their other work," Kelly said.

The funding request will be used to pay two firms through December. One company would supply the staff to do the case investigations and contact tracing, along with a project management firm to do quality control.

"They will work on assisting us with the technical aspects of hiring staff, training staff and managing the surge of staff," Kelly said.

In the beginning stages of the pandemic, the Legislature authorized $8 million to build out the information technology system needed to track those who are infected and their contacts.

It also approved $3 million to hire a temporary employment agency to fill in some of the staffing gaps.

Now that money is running out, and the state will also be losing some volunteer help.

Students at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health had been doing some contact tracing, but that will end as the new school year begins.

Call center staff from the health plans Medica and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota were also providing support, but those arrangements will be ending, Kelly said.

Minnesota health officials say the goal is to contact each new COVID-19 case within 24 hours of receiving the lab report.

The quick turnaround is important so that epidemiologists can help identify outbreaks. Close contacts of those who are known to be infected are also interviewed and, depending on their exposure, can be advised to monitor their symptoms and stay home to prevent transmission of the disease.

As of Monday, about 18% of the 61,500 confirmed cases in the state either had not been interviewed or couldn't be reached.

It is unclear how the $35 million request will be funded. A $200 million COVID-19 Minnesota fund set up by the Legislature in late March is nearly exhausted with $9.1 million unspent.

The fund has been used to buy personal protective equipment for the state's stockpile and the COVID-19 diagnostic testing efforts by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic.

A third special Legislative session is scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192

Twitter: @GlennHowatt