Dr. Levine announces plans for contact tracing with electronic data surveillance system

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HARRISBURG, (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — Secretary of Health Dr. Levine announced Friday plans for contact tracing, including the use of an electronic data surveillance system, in Pennsylvania ahead of the official reopening of 24 designated counties.

Levine explained that when a positive result is received in the electronic data surveillance system, the community health nurses contact the patient and do a full-case investigation to discuss symptoms, collect demographic data, go over risk factors and determine who else they came into contact with.

If they are identified as a probable case, nurses remain in close contact with patients to ensure conditions remain stable and they’re following isolation protocols. Then nurses contact those who came into close contact with the infected person.

“Although these public health professionals are supported by surveillance and case management technology tools to track, manage and evaluate efforts, we will still need additional help to ensure residents’ safety through contact tracing,” Maggi Mumma, Deputy Press Secretary for the PA Department of Health Press Office told Eyewitness news in an email. “At this time, we do not know how many people are needed to assist with these contact tracing efforts. However, we continue to investigate each region’s needs and cases.”

Close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days from the time of their last exposure. The department checks every day to see they are not developing symptoms and are maintaining quarantine.

Levine also announced a new alert system that works alongside the disease surveillance system that helps with daily check-ins with people who are positive and their contacts. This will help compile a “more complete picture” of communities most impacted by collecting data such as race and ethnicity from patients.

An increased testing capacity is also a critical aspect of going from red to yellow. The system makes sure testing is accessible and available for all symptomatic Pennsylvanians. There is a plan to make testing widely available by partnering with existing community resources such as pharmacies and federally qualified health centers and they are also planning to target resources where they are most in need such as long-term living facilities nursing homes and personal care homes.

Officials will continue to build network of community based testing sites. To secure equipment, they will be working with the Department of Community and Economic Development, PEMA, and federal partners.

The Department of Health will determine who should be tested based on best science available while the Department of Community and Economic Development will seek out FDA-approved testing resources and work with Pennsylvania companies to provide needed tests. PEMA will assist in deploying testing to communities.

Officials will remain flexible with the testing strategy as the disease changes and progresses. From the beginning, the goal has been to save lives while ensuring the health system doesn’t become overwhelmed taking care of COVID-19 patients.

“Our contact testing and tracing plans will ensure that as we begin to safely resume our daily activities, we can do so safely and without fear,” Dr. Levine said.

Dr. Levine later added that there is no specific number for people doing tracing, but that she is sure more will be needed as more counties go from red to yellow and they do plan to hire people when needed.

Cost of the technology and staff needed to conduct the wide scale contact tracing will be covered in part by federal funding.

“To fund the support for this need, the department received an $18.7 million grant from CDC, which has earmarked a portion specifically for contact tracing,” Mumma said. “We also are applying for other state and federal grants to minimize the impact on Pennsylvania taxpayers.”

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