Medical professionals and public health researchers have learned a lot about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 since it first emerged in late 2019.
With the potential to spread COVID-19 prior to experiencing symptoms, all of us have to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks and wash our hands.
Since the virus spreads potentially for two days prior to developing symptoms, the original stay-at-home order during Pennsylvania’s “red” phase was an important public health strategy to flatten the curve and prevent overwhelming our hospitals. Now, as we continue to safely and responsibly reopen businesses and schools, contact tracing is one of the best public health tools we have to fight the virus.
The Lancaster County Contact Tracing program, which began in late May with support from the county commissioners and the federal CARES Act, is staffed by a team of nurses and trained professionals from Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, Lancaster Health Center and WellSpan Health. Contact tracing is an effective strategy that has been used for decades to prevent infectious diseases from spreading. Before COVID-19, it was used to contain infections like HIV, tuberculosis and measles.
The process of contact tracing is simple:
— First, a nurse calls people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
— With guidance from the nurse, the person with COVID-19 reflects on his or her activities and provides the names and phone numbers of people who were in close contact with him or her and may have been exposed to the virus. A close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for 10 minutes or more, up to two days before the infected person started to feel sick.
— Next, a contact tracer calls the close contacts. The contact tracer tells the contacts they were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, asks how they are feeling, and gives them instructions to quarantine (stay home and away from others) so they will stop the spread of COVID-19.
The nurses and contact tracers hired for this program were selected from our local community for their professionalism, empathy, kindness and ability to connect with people from different backgrounds. Most people to whom the contact tracers reach out are willingly and fully participating in this process.
As of Aug. 12, contact tracers have reached 1,197 patients positive for COVID-19 and 1,650 of their close contacts. With their cooperation, we have been able to ensure that the patients recover safely at home and the contacts quickly seek care if they develop any symptoms.
Test result delays slow our ability to identify and connect with contacts. At testing sites, we advise symptomatic patients to quarantine until their test comes back. The turnaround times for testing could always be improved.
As a community, if we commit to participating in the contact tracing program, we can minimize the spread of COVID-19. We will be able to cautiously and safely continue reopening our economy and returning to activities of daily life. With that goal in mind, we recognize that some may have concerns about contact tracing.
1. Privacy is very important. As health care providers, we are very careful to protect your private health information. When we call close contacts, we never reveal the identity of the patient who tested positive for COVID-19.
2. We understand that quarantine can be challenging. There are concerns about job responsibilities, caring for children and family members, or access to food and medicine while in quarantine. Our staff members are trained to assist patients and contacts by connecting them to resources needed to stay safe and stay home.
3. Your participation is your choice, and we encourage everyone to help save lives by joining us in this process. We will do our best to help you understand the value of the program and address any concerns you have.
It is important to continue following the advice from public health professionals about everyday precautions to prevent the spread of the virus: Stay 6 feet away from others, wash your hands, disinfect surfaces frequently, and wear a cloth face mask in public.
We are now asking you to add another vital task to this list: When it’s a contact tracer on the line, answer the call. By participating in the contact tracing process, you can help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Lancaster County.
Dr. Michael Ripchinski is the chief clinical officer at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.