Penn Medicine Contact Tracing

JoAnne Hendricks, a member of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health's COVID-19 contact tracing team, at the Burle Business Park on Aug. 5, 2020.

As the coronavirus continues to spread across Lancaster County, contact tracers are having greater success alerting people who may have been exposed and encouraging them to self-isolate for up to 14 days to stop further spread.

Self-isolation of potentially contagious individuals is a key strategy for limiting transmission of COVID-19, experts say, and if contact tracers are getting more people to respond to their calls and take precautions to protect others, it could ease the impact of the pandemic here.

Tracers try to call people within 24 hours of being identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive. They are now reaching 61% of those contacts in Lancaster County, compared to 52% in mid-June and 48% in late May, when Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health launched a $42 million testing and tracing initiative.

The improvement may be the result of ongoing communication skills training to help tracers better engage with patients and their contacts. The script the tracers use over the phone has evolved, and outreach is in the preferred language of the patient or contact, Mary Ann Eckard, an LG Health spokesperson, said.

“There is also increasing awareness in the community about contact tracing as a tool to address the spread of COVID-19,” Eckard said.

The hospital’s contact tracing center has 46 LG Health staff members who have contacted a total of 3,448 people about exposure.

On average, each person who has tested positive has reported two or three close contacts. A close contact is a person who spent 10 or more minutes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive. Eckard said contact tracing has not found instances of large gatherings here leading to numerous cases.

LG Health has tested 66,450 people, 8.1% of whom tested positive. WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital has tested 10,492 people with a positive rate of 11.7%.


Recent uptick

 The good news that contact tracing has become more effective is tempered, however, by a recent uptick in hospitalizations, positive cases and deaths in Lancaster County.

Lancaster General Hospital reported 21 COVID-19 inpatients on Tuesday, six of whom were in critical care. That number is the highest since late August. Separately, WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital had seven positive inpatients, compared to only one or two a month ago.

A total of 436 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus in Lancaster County, including nine in October compared to 13 for all of September. In September, up to five days passed between deaths. Eighty-eight percent of the deaths have been people aged 70 or older.

A total of 8,669 people have tested positive in Lancaster County since the first cases on March 19. Over the past two weeks, an average of 52 people have tested positive each day. That compares to a daily average of 42  over the previous two weeks.

Penn Manor High School on Tuesday became the sixth school here to temporarily suspend in-person instruction because of outbreaks.

Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer at LG Health, said contact tracing helps prevent the spread of coronavirus, but it doesn’t replace wearing a mask that covers the mouth and nose, social distancing and hand washing.

“As we head into colder months, we will see an increase in respiratory illness, like colds and flu, so it is important to get a flu shot for added protection,” he said.