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Contact tracing critical to stopping COVID spread

With increased coronavirus outbreaks, hospitals and health departments say contact tracing — an essential part of controlling the pandemic’s spread — will be more difficult, causing Pennsylvania to now shift the focus of those efforts to those diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last six days.

Local health departments say they have anticipated a surge, and the state health department has issued new guidance for a modified strategy to protect the most vulnerable populations to severe infection consequences in the community.

“As the burden of COVID-19 worsens, health departments will prioritize which cases to investigate and contacts to trace,” said Michael Huff, the state’s director of testing and contact tracing. “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical and acceptable.”

Folks, he added, are contracting the disease without knowing where they got it. And with only 150 case investigators and 1,672 contact tracers working with the Department of Health, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the workload.

Along with narrowing in on people who have been diagnosed in the past six days, contact tracers are prioritizing people who visit, live in, or work in a care facility or go to a job in a high-density workplace.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania reported an additional 6,669 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 81 new virus-related deaths. Statewide, there have been 321,070  confirmed cases and 9,951 deaths.

Huff said of the almost 35,000 positive cases reported in the past week, 23% of people who tested positive were contacted within 24 hours and 7% were contacted within 48 hours. However, of those, only 25% of people had their cases successfully contact traced, with 96% of contacts refusing to quarantine.

This is extremely concerning, Huff noted, since COVID-19 patients and the individuals they interacted with during the 14-day incubation period could spread the disease without even knowing it.

“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone,” Huff said. “People do not realize how important it is to give the information that we need to make certain that we can control the disease.”

The commonwealth is experiencing a substantial level of transmission in nearly all of its counties, indicating alarming community spread, which Huff said is a result of both large and small gatherings.

“It’s indicative that in both of those settings, disease spread can occur very easily,” Huff said. “Certainly in small gatherings where we become a little bit too free with our movements and perhaps don’t social distance as much. We’re less likely to wear masks. Certainly we’ve seen a lot of data that demonstrate cases are identified out of those groups.”

As cases of COVID-19 reach record levels in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine recently announced new mitigation efforts to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

This included new guidelines for schools wishing to continue in-person teaching of students and a stay-at-home advisory issued by the governor.

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