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Health Officials on Governor’s Call for More Contact Tracing

Graphic of people standing in interconnected grid
Contact tracing involves tracking every contact a person diagnosed with COVID-19 has had over the previous two weeks - a labor-intensive but ultimately useful practice for controlling the spread of the disease. (Photo: Bob Boz/Shutterstock)

Health officials say contact tracing is the first line of defense against a disease outbreak. The process involves identifying everyone who has been in contact with an infected person, so they can be alerted and provided with instructions for how to protect themselves and others. Governor Ralph Northam says he wants state health officials to ramp up contact tracing in the coming weeks. VPM’s Whittney Evans spoke to Virginia’s Deputy Commissioner of Population Health, Dr. Laurie Forlano last week about how those efforts are going.

Transcript

Forlano: Due to the case volume in Virginia, some of our local health departments, the volume is exceeding their capacity to do every single case investigation and contact tracing. So we try to focus our efforts on the more vulnerable settings, so outbreaks, crises in health care settings, other congregate living settings. They aim to do contract investigations to the fullest extent possible. Another thing we're thinking about as we may move into a new phase of this pandemic is how do we build out our public health workforce? And we're really thinking through that now.

Evans: What’s the status of efforts to potentially hire more contact tracers? How many more do you need?

Forlano: Yeah, I think we’re building that proposal now. So thinking about how to scale up a public health workforce is really important for the next phase of this. I don't have specific numbers just yet, but you have to balance a lot of factors here. So where is our testing capacity right now? Where will it be in a few weeks? Where will we be in the curve of data and that helps inform the workforce that we’ll need. 

Evans: What sort of technology might you be making use of? Maybe an app making use of maybe there may be an app to assist with this that some other states are doing?

Forlano: So there are some technologies that can be used to augment contact tracing or enhance it. There are apps on people's phones. You can use telephone numbers and information to push information out to people that may have been exposed. We're exploring with a few different technologies there to see which one fits our needs the best. I still think the workforce is still such an important component and the boots on the ground the people are still an essential component of a good response.

Evans: What support could you use, if any, from the federal government with contact tracing

Forlano: So that’s evolving as well. Obviously we get support from Centers for Disease Control. And my understanding is that they're going to be reaching out to states to help ascertain their needs and maybe even send teams to states as well. The details of that, I think, are forthcoming. And we'll be sure to share that information as soon as it’s worked out.

Evans: So the Department of Health is not releasing the names of facilities where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred. What's the explanation for this? Do you do have any sense of that, for wanting to keep those names private?

Forlano: Right. We do protect the names of those individuals that are diagnosed with reportable conditions. And we also have an obligation to protect the name, a legal obligation, to protect the names of people that report cases to us. And in some instances, those are facilities. What I can say is that we balance the importance of public health efforts and contact tracing, etc., with the very important responsibility to protect privacy and confidentiality. Dr. Oliver, our state health commissioner...extended authority to local health departments to share information about facilities experiencing outbreaks with other facilities in a general, geographic area. 

Evans: That’s Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner of population health at Virginia Department of Health. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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