Pa. DOH seeks support in contact tracing efforts

HARRISBURG—The state Department of Health Monday announced updates on Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing data and encouraged residents to download the COVID Alert PA app to aid in contact tracing efforts.

Contact tracing is the process of identifying, notifying, and monitoring anyone who came in close contact with an individual who has COVID-19 while they were infectious. The contact tracing process is not possible without a case investigation by a public health professional. Case investigators make the initial call to those with positive COVID-19 test results.

During the case investigation, public health professionals spend 30 to 60 minutes asking questions to ensure all potential close contacts are identified.

They collect information about with whom the case came in contact and where the case went while infectious. Information collected during the case investigation process is not shared publicly unless doing so would help the department in its efforts to stop the spread on a broader scale.

Between Sunday, Oct. 4 and Saturday, Oct. 11, there were 8,580 COVID-19 cases statewide and 45 percent of all cases had a case investigation started within 24 hours of receiving the positive report, according to DOH officials.

After the initial case investigation is complete, contact tracing begins. Within the same time period of Oct. 4-11, there were 1,407 contact tracing staff working with local and county health entities, partner organizations and the Regional Response Health Collaboration Program within the Department of Human Services as well as volunteers from Co-County Wellness in Berks County and Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

“Over the past 14 days Pennsylvania has had more than 1,000 new cases each day, which also means the number of people in close contact with some with a positive test result has grown,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “Our public health professionals performing the case investigations and contact tracers following up with the identified close contacts are working diligently to meet the rising need for these proven public health strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In order to work successfully, we need Pennsylvanians to answer the phone and answer all case investigation questions. By answering the call, you are helping to complete a case investigation and protecting those you’ve been in contact with. If someone knows they’ve been exposed to COVID, they can quarantine, seek a test or medical care, and stay home to help stop the spread.”

Currently, 790 paid employees have been onboarded through a partnership with Insight Global. An additional 210 paid staff will be hired through the end of October. These new positions include contact tracing supervisors and care resource coordinators, who will help to refer Pennsylvanians to services during quarantine.

These staff monitored 11,047 contacts that were identified during the case investigations.

On Sept. 22, the department launched COVID Alert PA, a free mobile app that uses Bluetooth technology to let a person know that they have been exposed to COVID-19 without compromising the identity or location of either the person using the app, or of the person to whom they may have been exposed. There has been over 320,000 downloads thus far.

This app helps the contact tracing process by identifying and notifying those people identified as close contacts through Bluetooth technology when a person with COVID-19 does not remember everyone with whom they may have come in contact while infectious, for example, the someone they sat next to on a bus. To best support those close contacts identified through the app, there are contact tracers specifically assigned to support if those close contacts would like to talk to someone and ask questions about their next steps.

As the contact tracing program expands, the Department of Health continues to work in partnership with over 150 organizations, in addition to the county and municipal health departments, through regional partnerships to help gather and answer questions, identify problems and find solutions to improve contact tracing efforts within the region. Each regional partnership has met at least once, and includes public health staff, health providers, academic institutions, community organizations, and other stakeholders interested in helping to coordinate and engage around contact tracing efforts.