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COVID-19 surveillance planned

Can generally help determine the extent of the pandemic

The director of testing and contact tracing for the state Department of Health plans to launch systematic surveillance testing for COVID-19 within the next three months to identify pockets of infected but asymptomatic people.

Currently, surveillance testing — which can help determine the extent of the pandemic generally, rather than simply the infection status of individuals — has occurred in long-term care facilities and on college campuses and is happening, along with generalized testing, at various testing sites around the state, whenever people without symptoms are checked, according to Michael Huff, speaking in a virtual news conference Tuesday.

But surveillance hasn’t been the department’s “primary focus,” Huff said.

Starting soon, however, he’d like to do surveillance testing in a more methodical fashion, based on epidemiological principles, as a tool to further control the spread of infection, even as the state’s vaccination program takes hold, Huff indicated.

“The vaccine doesn’t override the importance of continuing testing,” Huff said.

The effort will mainly involve locating pockets where 25% to 40% of infected people who are without symptoms could otherwise keep the pandemic going without realizing it, he said. When those people are identified, they can be isolated, and their close contacts quarantined, Huff said.

Some of the surveillance that has occurred already is thanks to the department’s instructions to test for asymptomatic people in the roving sites set up in five new counties each week by AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, Huff said.

Variants

Pennsylvania recently has been sending test samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to check for the presence of COVID-19 “variants” — one from the United Kingdom that is reportedly more contagious, and one from South Africa, that may be less vulnerable to vaccines, according to Huff.

So far, neither variant has been detected in Pennsylvania, he said.

But the U.K. variant has been found in New York, according to reports.

Support

The department has begun to provide “support” when necessary for people who are contacted by case investigators or contact tracers, according to Lindsey Mauldin, special assistant for contact tracing.

That support generally consists of referrals to “sister agencies” like the Department of Human Services, the Bureau of Drug & Alcohol and the Department of Aging, when isolating or quarantining could lead to loss of a job or problems obtaining food, or when a housing situation makes isolation and quarantine difficult or impossible, Mauldin said.

The support includes checking on those people as isolation or quarantine proceeds, she said.

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

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