Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver speaks to reporters in March following a daily update on the state's response to the spread of COVID-19. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia is rushing to hire 1,000 contact tracers — public health workers who help contain the spread of infection diseases by tracking down people who came in contact with a sick person.

But for now, state officials are unable to say exactly how many people they’re paying to do a job that public health experts agree will be essential to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Health Commissioner Norman Oliver put the figure “in the hundreds,” blaming the uncertainty on the decentralized system of local health departments around the state, which are broken into 35 districts that contain 129 local offices.

“Each of those health departments are facing a different level of cases in their jurisdiction and they ramp up or down depending on what’s happening in their locality,” he said during a news conference Wednesday. “So at any point, I couldn’t tell you exactly how many people were working on contact tracing” in a specific locality.

“It’s probably two to three hundred people who are doing that kind of work.”

Virginia was one of nine states that either couldn’t or didn’t say how many contact tracers it has working when surveyed last week by NPR.

The broadcaster found only one state, North Dakota, had 30 contact tracers available for every 100,000 residents, the number public health experts say is necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another three jurisdiction—Nebraska, Michigan and the District of Columbia—say they have plans to meet that threshold.

Virginia’s goal of bringing its workforce of contact tracers up to 1,350 would give the state about 15 for every 100,000 residents, which experts told NPR they considered adequate levels for a non-emergency situation.

Oliver said the hiring process will make it easier to track exactly how many contract tracers Virginia has going forward. Northam said Wednesday the state can scale its workforce up or down as needed.

“If we need less at some point, we’ll deal with that. If we need more, we’ll obviously hire as many people as we need to do the job adequately,” he said.