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Contact tracers say this is the time they can stop coronavirus outbreaks: 'This is the crux of public health'

Erin McCarthy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

In 50 living rooms and home offices, Delaware contact tracers arm themselves every morning with laptops and cellphones, the weapons they need to curb coronavirus outbreaks. They spend hours each day calling people who have recently tested positive for the virus. They dial each person in the morning, afternoon, and evening until they answer, listening to ring after ring, hoping to hear a voice on the other end of the line. Eventually, they’ll reach about 80% of cases with a valid phone number.

Now, more than at any other point in the pandemic, this team says it can help stop surges and — with vaccinations — keep case rates low, said Tracey Johnson, director of Delaware’s Office of Contact Tracing. The state, with a population just under a million, has been averaging 45 new cases a day.

“This is the crux of public health,” Johnson said. “Right here. This moment.”

Contact tracing generally involves calling people who test positive for the coronavirus, identifying anyone they might have exposed, and then reaching out to those individuals to alert them and tell them to quarantine or monitor for symptoms, regardless of whether they’re Olympic gymnasts in Tokyo or professional baseball players. As the virus spread rapidly in 2020, it was impossible for health departments to trace all cases. But now as rates have dropped in the Philadelphia region, contact tracing is once again a powerful tool, and tiny Delaware has wielded it particularly well, reaching a higher percentage of people recently than neighboring Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In Delaware, 81% of residents reached by contact tracers completed a case investigation interview between June 27 and July 18, the most recent period for which the data were available.

This comes months after the height of the pandemic, when states were reporting thousands of new cases a day and many health departments were tracing only the most vulnerable cases.

 

In Philadelphia, which has 600,000 more residents than Delaware, the contact tracing program was “cut back significantly” for five months this winter, as case counts skyrocketed and some tracers were reassigned to vaccination clinics, spokesperson James Garrow said. Efforts ramped back up to full capacity in May, he said, and in recent weeks tracers have completed investigations with 40% to 67% of confirmed cases.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey also are again attempting to trace all new confirmed cases, with varying success. Between June 10 and July 9, Pennsylvania interviewed 34% of all confirmed cases, according to state health officials, while New Jersey did so for 69% of cases from July 4 to July 10, its data show.

“We continue to urge people to answer the call if they are contacted,” said Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson Maggi Barton. “Swift and effective contact tracing plays a central role in stopping potential outbreaks before they begin.”

Critical time

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