LebTown Explains: What’s the status of contact tracing in Lebanon County?

3 min read827 views and 10 shares Posted April 29, 2020

Social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands thoroughly are some of the steps to take to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

For those diagnosed with COVID-19, contact tracing can help mitigate the spread. It identifies the people that have had contact with a patient diagnosed with COVID-19. After they’re located, they can be tested and isolated to help limit the impact of the disease.

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Local health systems are engaged in contact tracing. Douglas Etter, Lebanon Veteran Affairs Medical Center chief communications officer, said in an email statement last week that the medical center is conducting internal contact tracing. Etter indicated that for employee exposures, internal contacts are investigated through the Employee Health and Occupational Health department. For veteran exposures, internal contacts are investigated by primary care providers. Once tracing is completed, the Lebanon VA is able to alert staff and patients who may have been exposed to a positive COVID-19 individual. Etter noted that per CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidance and VA protocols, individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms are immediately isolated to prevent potential spread to others. The medical center has specifically designated space for the care and treatment of veteran patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

WellSpan Health, whose facilities include the 163-licensed bed WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital, is working collaboratively with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and is following the department’s guidance regarding contact tracing in the communities it serves.

“As part of that guidance, we ask COVID-19 patients to be proactive in alerting those they may have exposed prior to their testing. Additional contact tracing protocols are then carried out by the state Department of Health,” said Cindy Stauffer, WellSpan Health senior media relations & communications specialist.

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Nate Wardle, Department of Health press secretary, said in an email to LebTown, “We know that easing the stay-at-home order is a necessary step to return Pennsylvanians to some semblance of their normal lives. However, we also know that in order to do that, we will need to ensure more testing is available and we can conduct thorough contact tracing. We are actively starting that work in areas where orders may be lifted first to protect Pennsylvanians.”

He said the department is working on determining exactly how many people will be needed to do contact tracing. He explained that it frequently takes an individual 30-60 minutes to conduct an interview with an initial case. The time includes interviewing the person, talking through their risks, their symptoms and symptom onset. After that, all of their activities during the time they were symptomatic, where people could have been exposed, are discussed. Using that information, the names of those who were potentially exposed and contact information for those people are gathered. The next step is to call each of those contacts and discuss prudent public health steps.

One case could have as few as five contacts or as many as 200 contacts or more.

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“Even if we only assume 10 close contacts per case, this could take six hours per case at minimum. With 1,200 new cases per day in Pennsylvania, this would take 7,200 man-hours per day conducting contact tracing. With a 12-hour workday, and realizing that you cannot do a 24 hour day and call people while they are sleeping, this would take 600 individuals a day dedicated to simple contact tracing,” he reported.

Several technology platforms are available to help manage the contact tracing data—information such as whether the individual has been reached or a message was left. Wardle said DOH is currently evaluating which platforms would best fit the department’s needs, but the landscape here is shifting quickly.

Later this week, tech giants Google and Apple are expected to release beta versions and further technical documentation of a new “exposure notification” framework that will be integrated into the iOS and Android operating systems. This framework will allow the public to participate in contact tracing in a mostly passive way designed to protect individual privacy. Only apps released by health authorities will have access to this system, and consumer apps are expected to be introduced to app stores as early as mid-May.

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Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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Full Disclosure: WellSpan Health is an advertiser on LebTown at present. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.

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