Contact tracing Delaware’s next step in virus battle

Staff in the coordinated partnership conduct initial screening and assessment Wednesday in the first of three large-scale COVID-19 testings and screenings in Georgetown. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

DOVER — When it comes to starting on the road to recovery post-COVID-19, “contact tracing” is a term that keeps surfacing.

Beyond widespread testing, a supply of personal protective equipment and constant monitoring, the state also needs “to have in place increased and enhanced contact tracing,” before Delaware’s economy can reopen, said Gov. John Carney at a press conference last Tuesday.

“We do some of that [contact tracing] now, but we’re going to need several times the number of contact tracers and an organization to deploy those community health workers on the street, especially with focus on vulnerable populations — our seniors, our nursing homes, our low-income and crowded communities, and every area of our state,” he said.

Plans for contact tracing are underway in the state, and Gov. Carney said that Massachusetts offers a roadmap to rolling it out in Delaware.

Contact tracing is the process of reaching out to those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and then finding out who that individual would have had contact with. Contact tracing has been used in the past for Ebola, SARS and other epidemiological incidents.

Massachusetts rolled out its contact tracing initiative in early April; it took 13 days for the process to fully begin.

To conduct contact tracing in the state, the Commonwealth Health Connector Authority, a “quasi-public state agency,” is working in addition to, and in support of, the Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health, said Jason Lefferts, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Health Connector.

Partners in Health, a Massachusetts nonprofit, is involved with the recruitment and hiring process for contact tracers.
About a thousand contact tracers are employed currently, and about 200 more are being trained, Mr. Lefferts said.

The state’s local health departments had been carrying out contact tracing previously, Mr. Lefferts said.

“We’ve had significant interest,” he said. “We’ve had over 34,000 applications.”

Training takes less than a week, he added.

Contact tracers are equipped with a script to connect with recent COVID-19 patients, confirm their details, inquire about their symptoms and try to gather exposure information. The contact tracer then asks the individual to think about the people they’re around daily: family, friends, coworkers and anyone they’ve been within six feet for 15 minutes or more.

With that list, the contact tracer reaches out to that person, inquires about symptoms and can make referrals for testing. The contact tracer also explains what quarantine means and gives instructions should the contact develop symptoms.

The goal of the phone call is two-fold: one, to call the people that individual has been in contact with and let them know that they should be evaluated. Two, encourage the individual to self-isolate to limit the spread of the virus, as well as provide information on how to effectively isolate.

“We know that all of this can sound scary, but we also know that the only way to beat this pandemic is to work together as a community to stop it,” the script reads. “The more contacts we find and get tested early, the more cases we can prevent.”

Delaware’s population rings in at about 974,000 people, according to census data from 2019, compared to Massachusetts’s 6.8 million. Mr. Lefferts said that the goal of having at least a thousand tracers is to handle the volume of confirmed cases.

In a news conference last week, Karyl Rattay, director of Delaware Health and Social Services, said Delaware is looking to hire around 200 contact tracers. She also said that DHSS has been working on Healthy Communities Delaware, an initiative that seeks to address health equity, with a focus on working with communities of color.

“Really building on that work, our testing work and our contact tracing work, we’re going to have a ground force that is going to be really helping us work with those communities to better understand needs, to better understand how to contact trace people,” she said. “So it is very important and we still have a lot more work to do.”

When contacted for an interview, DPH said it was not ready to discuss details of the contact tracing program yet.

Nationwide, a PEW report notes that other states, such as California and New York, have announced major efforts in contact tracing, which includes millions of “state and philanthropic dollars, thousands of new workers and partnerships with a wide range of organizations.”

Massachusetts, PEW reports, budgeted $44 million for its large scale contact tracing operation.

Most states, however, are utilizing public health employees, volunteers, school nurses who are out of work, state employees and the National Guard to do a form of contact tracing, according to PEW.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.