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DoH must prioritize contact tracing

Overwhelmed, state turns focus on vulnerable population, severe outbreaks

The intensity of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak has forced the Department of Health to prioritize contact tracing to protect the most vulnerable and to help control the virus in areas where the eruption is most severe, the department’s director of testing and contact tracing said on a conference call Wednesday.

“We have an incredible spike in cases,” Michael Huff said on the day when new COVID-19 positives first broke 6,000 cases. “It’s a very dangerous time.”

It’s most dangerous for older people, those with underlying health problems and those in congregate settings like nursing homes, Huff said.

Those vulnerable people are getting called first by tracers, who are armed with information obtained by case investigators who have previously contacted people who tested positive in order to learn their “close contacts” — those people with whom they came within 6 feet for 15 minutes.

The pandemic is also the most dangerous where the virus is flourishing the most freely, so there’s also priority being given to contract tracing in those areas, Huff said.

He didn’t specify our region, but all six local counties are dark red on the department’s regular COVID-19 dashboard and all six recently exceeded the thresholds of concern on key metrics of the department’s “early warning” dashboard — a positivity rate of 5% and an incidence rate of 50 new cases over the past week per 100,000 people.

There are instances of health departments “becoming overwhelmed” in Pennsylvania, according to Huff, answering a reporter inquiring about the situation in the Allentown area.

In such cases, the department has been “mobilizing” and reassigning tracers to help, Huff said.

During the first week of this month, the department has begun case investigations in 25% of its 21,000 COVID-19 cases within the first 24 hours, according to Huff.

That is down from 85% this summer, when the outbreak was much milder, according to a reporter’s question — a statistic Huff didn’t contradict.

Part of the problem is that people don’t answer calls from investigators and tracers, according to Huff.

It’s especially true for those 18 to 35 years old, who tend to be “somewhat reluctant to return calls to share information,” Huff said. “That is our challenge.”

The identities of those who talk to investigators aren’t shared with close contacts who talk to tracers, Huff said.

“We want to earn and maintain the trust (of the public),” Huff said.

A case investigation takes 30 to 60 minutes, according to a department news release.

“It’s not something to be feared,” Huff said.

Don’t ignore calls when caller ID says they’re coming from a health department — whether the state’s, a county’s or a municipality’s he said.

“By answering the call, you are helping our health professionals mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our communities to further protect our neighbors and loved ones,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said this week in a news release.

If case investigators don’t reach someone who’s tested positive in the first 24 hours, they’ll keep trying, according to the news release.

More than 1,600 contact tracers used the information obtained by case investigators during that first week of the month.

They attempted to get in touch with about 8,400 close contacts, according to the news release.

Since early October, in areas of the state not served by county or municipal health departments, the DoH has reached 75% of the 34,000 close contacts identified, according to the news release.

The department is still trying to reach about 5% of the rest.

The department doesn’t track how many close contacts end up testing positive.

In Blair County, “it’s all done by the Department of Health,” although there are a couple local volunteers working with the department, said county Emergency Management Director Mark Taylor.

The department doesn’t plan to give up on case investigations and contact tracing no matter how bad the pandemic gets, according to Huff.

“Regardless of the number of positives we see, we’ll continue,” he said. “We’ll exhaust the list of positives until we’re assured the disease is controlled.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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