Contact tracing in Wayne County

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 7/8/20

WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Now that the curve has been flattened, PA counties have moved into the green phase and many people have resumed living their lives as normal—most conversations about …

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Contact tracing in Wayne County

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WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Now that the curve has been flattened, PA counties have moved into the green phase and many people have resumed living their lives as normal—most conversations about COVID-19 are revolving around the possibility of a “second wave.” Both Wayne and Pike counties have seen a handful of new positive cases crop up in the weeks since going green. Health officials say that new cases are expected with less restrictive guidelines in place. But in order to keep that rise in check, officials say that it’s absolutely critical to perform timely contact tracing. 

When a new case is identified, state health officials or local health centers work with the infected person to determine who they have been in contact with and, therefore, who they have potentially exposed to the virus. They also determine the proximity and duration of the contacts’ interactions with positive cases. Wynter Newman of Wayne Memorial Community Health Centers (WMCHC) said that, under Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, mask-to-mask exposures are considered low-risk and therefore do not require the contacts to quarantine. In unmasked exposures, contacts must self-quarantine for two weeks since the last time they were with the positive case. Contacts are also instructed to monitor their own symptoms and may be directed to get tested.

Through effective contact tracing, the state’s health departments can keep exposed people at home and prevent them from possibly spreading the virus even further. Experts say the most important time for tracing is during times of reopening—right now.

According to reporting from investigative news outlet Spotlight PA, Gov. Tom Wolf has allowed most PA counties to move into the green phase “without a full and consistent contact tracing system in place.” Pennsylvania’s system has been described as “a patchwork of hospital systems, nonprofits, county governments and state-employed public health nurses.”

In this region, a small staff of  PA Health Department nurses based in Wayne and Pike counties did most of the contact tracing work in the early days of the pandemic. Newman said that the growing number of cases quickly became too high for the small number of nurses to handle on their own. This prompted WMCHC to develop a tracing procedure of its own.

“We kind of did it on our own initiative, and to be honest, I think that we did it a little bit sooner than a lot of other healthcare centers because we had the resources,” she said, explaining that their health centers had a larger staff and fewer patients.

Since going green, Wayne County has not experienced any major upticks in cases. This is good news for the area’s contact tracers, Newman said, since it’s a more complex job right now than when Wolf’s stay-at-home order was still in place.

“In the previous couple of weeks prior to the county and state starting to reopen, it was a little bit easier because people didn’t have as many contacts because they were staying home; now that’s expanding,” she said. “Fortunately, we haven’t seen many new cases, so we haven’t had the experience of having a huge, broad spectrum of contact tracing.”

Research data suggests that PA is lacking in contact tracers, and could be underprepared if cases begin to surge again. According to the “Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator” developed by researchers at The George Washington University, PA needs about 3,100 contact tracers; a recent press release from the department of health noted that the state employs 500 tracers, and around 1,000 more have volunteered. Wolf’s administration has said that it’s looking to hire more, intending to “double” its number of contact tracers in the “near future.”

Other states throughout the country have found outside-the-box solutions to amassing larger tracing teams—training librarians, employees at nonprofit organizations, school nurses and college students.

Newman said that for now, WMCHC has not needed to seek outside help for contact tracing, though that is a possibility for the future.

“There is a lot of talk in our [Federally Qualified Health Center] world about funding coming down to hire people and to have a literal contact tracing department,” she said. “But at this time, we really like that it’s within our individual office because the majority of patients in the community are our patients... so we get to continue to have that personal connection with the patient.”

Compared to other PA counties and other states, Newman said that Wayne County has had effective contact tracing since early on. She added that masking and social distancing has kept numbers low here, and that this has played the most important role in preventing healthcare workers—like contact tracers—from getting overwhelmed.

“The biggest part was the proof of the masking and the social distancing that kept our numbers down that allowed us to move to the green phase. I just hope that people continue to respect that part and be cognizant of that, and hope that we can keep our levels down, move through the summer, enjoy the summer, allow the children to go back to school with whatever parameters they put into place in the fall, and then prepare for the school season.”

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