Contact tracing an uphill fight in Pennsylvania


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — When Pennsylvanians test positive for coronavirus, they can expect a call or letter from a health official wanting to know who they’ve contacted in the 48 hours before showing symptoms or testing positive.

All of those people will then be alerted and possibly asked to self-quarantine. That process is known as contact tracing.

“It’s an important mechanism to limit the spread of Covid-19,” said Rep. Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery).

Health officials insist a robust contact tracing infrastructure is key to safely re-opening the economy and schools. That plan isn’t so easy testified several health professionals at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing Wednesday morning.

One major hurdle is significant delays for results from coronavirus testing. Several say that’s unacceptable and a national failure that states are forced to confront.

“If we can’t get test results in a timely manner, it’s difficult for contact tracing to be beneficial,” said Michel Masters, Director of the Communicable Disease Control and Prevention with the Montgomery County Office of Public Health.

Also problematic — many residents are not cooperating with faceless bureaucrats asking personal questions on the telephone. Many ignore the calls and letters over privacy concerns.

State Rep. Dan Miller (D-Allegheny County) recommended better public outreach or stronger public relations. “To let people know what privacy is protected, what options people can decide on versus what some people believe is some sort of malicious big brother type of effort.”

Masters noted that when the state went green, too many people went overboard. There were large parties, some of which were busted, and there was the challenge of youth sports.

“Where (sports) social distancing and masking hasn’t been maintained,” Masters said. “Where we’ve had to do contact tracing and quarantining of whole teams.”

Some believe the commonwealth needs to crack down more on violators, to protect the common health. Those critics point to people who visit states on Pennsylvania’s quarantine list, which updates every Friday. They encourage checks at airports or roadways as some states have already adopted.

“Do we get to a point where we look at some kind of enforcement?” asked Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia).

“We don’t have a good enforcement mechanism to force that quarantine,” said Sarah Boateng, Executive Deputy Secretary for the PA Department of Health. “We don’t have the records of everyone who has traveled.”

The state estimates it will need 4,000 contact tracers, per CDC recommendations. It currently has 654.

Briggs shook his head. He knows that PA spends $15 per capita on public health which ranks 42nd in the nation. “There’s only 10 local health departments in the state; there’s 67 counties. We need to do a better job overall and across the board.”

Those contact tracers need better cooperation to do their jobs more efficiently. Masters promises that they won’t bite.

“It’s nothing accusative,” she said. “We’re not judgemental. We’re just trying to stop the spread.”

Additional information on contact tracing and steps to become a tracer can be found here.

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