Contact tracing virus helping Pa. counties

One reason the state’s northcentral and northwest health districts will move first from corona­virus lockdown red to the less restrictive yellow phase on Friday is the Department of Health’s ability there to follow the tentacles of potential infection outbreaks and cut them off, according to the DoH.

“The department has enough resources through its existing network of community health nurses and the Erie County Health Department to begin contact tracing,” states the department’s contact tracing plan, available on the departmental website.

Actually, “community health nurses in those districts have already begun to perform contact tracing, notification and monitoring of identified case contacts” in those regions, because of “a lower disease incidence rate” there, the plan states.

Additionally, trained teams of epidemiologists, epidemiological research associates, master’s degree and doctoral students in public health and a policy advisor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been assigned there to notify and provide followup recommendations when a COVID-19 case and/or outbreak is identified in large congregate settings like nursing and personal care homes, health care facilities, correctional facilities, food processing and packing plants and other large outbreak settings, the plan states.

“These teams will be sufficient to provide robust contact tracing in the initial regions identified to move into the Yellow Phase,” it states.

The announcement last week that 24 of the 25 counties in the northcentral and northwest health districts would go to yellow first led to blowback from lawmakers in the southcentral and southwest district counties that have low recent infection numbers, including Blair and Cambria — their disappointment sharpened by prior indications that the administration wouldn’t necessarily base its reopening of the state entirely on the health district groupings — created in the 1960s for now obscure reasons.

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine reiterated on Saturday that the state would “not stick to any specific schema” — when a reporter asked why Allegheny County in the southwest was not included despite a low recent infection rate.

“We said all along it would be counties and counties in regions,” Levine said later, when another reporter suggested that in fact the first round of reopenings stuck almost precisely to the health district “schema.”

As it moves toward opening other regions, the department is planning “to partner with county/municipal health departments, healthcare networks, academic institutions, disease intervention specialists, displaced workers who are trained in contact tracing workflow and other volunteer organizations” to pursue keep outbreaks from happening, according to the plan.

Contact tracing calls for community health nurses to work with patients, helping them recall everyone with whom they had close contact during the time they were infectious — about 48 hours before symptoms began, according to the plan.

Staffers notify the close contacts identified by the patients about their exposure “as rapidly and sensitively as possible” — without revealing the name of the patients, according to the plan.

The close contacts receive information about their risks and told to quarantine, separating themselves by at least six feet from others, and to monitor themselves for illness, checking their temperatures, for 14 days.

Contacts who develop symptoms must isolate themselves, notify public health staff and be evaluated for infection and the need for medical care, according to the plan.

The department will be using a MITRE-Sara Alert contact monitoring app that will allow contact tracers to stay in touch with exposed individuals through emails, texts and phone calls, providing guidance while receiving pertinent data, according to the plan.

The department will also deploy a web-based smart-phone app that will alert voluntary participants after they come in sustained near contact with fellow participants who later find they’ve become infected and inform the authorities about it.

The department has about 150 staffers on its case investigation and contact tracing team, available for any disease outbreak, according to the plan.

Ten county and municipal health departments have staff doing the same kind of work on the local level.

In the southcentral district, in which Blair is one of 13 counties, 40 volunteers from the Penn State College of Medicine will be trained in CDC guidelines to work as contact tracers, along with York’s health department, according to the plan.

Allegheny, Bucks, Chester (which is also responsible for Delaware), Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties have health departments, as do the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York.

Those county and local departments will have primary responsibility for contact tracing in their jurisdictions.

The department has received an $18.7 million grant from the CDC, and part of the money is earmarked for contact tracing.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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