Delaware unveils more details of contact tracing program

Soldiers and Airmen of the Delaware National Guard receive initial information about contact tracing for COVID-19 at a training center for the Delaware Division of Public Health in Dover. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Laura Michael)

DOVER — Delaware continues to take steps toward a partial reopening, announcing Tuesday a plan to help trace the potential spread of COVID-19. The state will work with Maryland and the research institute NORC to perform contact tracing, the process of tracking coronavirus carriers and identifying with whom they have come in contact.

Gov. John Carney announced Friday he hopes to allow many businesses and other entities to open June 1, although he’s emphasized the situation is unpredictable and depends in large part on how well Delawareans follow social distancing and other protocols. The state will undergo a “rolling” reopening, with different industries moving at different paces depending on their needs, the governor said Monday.

As part of that, the state recently purchased 200,000 saliva-based tests in hopes of greatly increasing its capacity to the tune of 80,000 tests a month.

“To safely reopen our economy, we need to be able to quickly identify positive COVID-19 cases and reach out to those residents who may have been exposed. This contact tracing program brings us one step closer to returning Delaware to a new normal,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “We’ve been working with Maryland to coordinate our reopening efforts, and this partnership will build on that collaboration. Going forward, hiring a contact tracing workforce of Delawareans that reflects the diversity of our state will be a top priority.”

Maj. Richard T. Meier, an officer with the Delaware Air National Guard and Joint Task Force Delaware, has his temperature checked before the start of a Division of Public Health-led session on contact tracing for COVID-19 at a state training facility in Dover Monday, May 11. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Brendan Mackie)

Officials aim to hire about 200 people to help with contact tracing. Positions will be posted at de.gov/coronavirus in the coming weeks.

Beginning Monday, 100 members of the Delaware National Guard will work with DPH to start contact tracing. Once the initiative is underway, Delawareans who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 or do so in the future will receive a phone call from a case investigator seeking information about others they have encountered.

Basically, anyone who comes within 6 feet of someone with the virus for more than 10 minutes is susceptible to infection and will be notified, DPH Director Karyl Rattay said Tuesday during a news conference.

Employees in the program will reach out to these individuals to inform them and assist them in quarantining and getting tested. The state is working with local nonprofits to help those who are contacted through the tracers and need extra support, such as alternative housing as part of quarantining protocols.

Emphasis is being put on hiring as tracers not just people who are bilingual but those who come from often overlooked communities and thus can better relate to marginalized residents who otherwise might not receive the assistance they need.

Partnering with hospitals and other local organizations, Delaware has conducted several free testing events, with a focus on Sussex County. Those will continue, with four scheduled for the next week and a half, according to Delaware Emergency Management Agency Director A.J. Schall.

The state is also working to develop a testing regimen for health care workers and first responders, as well as some other employees of essential businesses, such as grocery stores.

Contact tracing is not a new concept, but it’s never been done on such a large scale, Dr. Rattay noted.

“We know we can’t stay at home forever,” she said. “We know we need to evolve back into what’s becoming our new normal, but in order to be able to do that, we have to test as many people as possible … and then we need to get those people isolated safely as quickly as possible, identify any of their contacts and get those contacts quarantined.”

NORC has already started working with Maryland to do contact tracing, and Delaware will benefit from that, she said.

“We are proud to be part of Delaware’s solution for COVID contact tracing during this critical time in the state’s history,” said David Cotton, NORC’s project director, in a statement. “We are bringing to bear our decades of experience with high volume, scientifically rigorous data collection and public health expertise to help the state and DHSS stem the tide of new infections.”

Virus progresses in Delaware

Delaware has seen 6,741 positive cases and 237 coronavirus-related deaths, including 176 new cases and 12 new fatalities announced Tuesday. The 12 deaths mark the most for one day in two weeks.

According to DPH, 276 people were hospitalized with 63 critically ill as of 6 p.m. Monday. In all, 2,802 Delawareans have recovered, meaning they’ve gone a week without symptoms.

The number of new hospitalizations is trending down, while the percentage of new positive tests had been declining before seeing a sudden resurgence over the past few days.

Delaware’s first official coronavirus case came on March 11. There were 5,776 cases and 187 deaths one week ago.

As of April 13, four weeks before the latest data, there were 1,828 cases and 41 deaths.

About .7 percent of Delawareans, or seven people for every 1,000 individuals in the state, have had the virus.

Thanks to Delawareans mostly following social distancing and obeying emergency restrictions imposed by the governor, the state has been able to avoid the worst-case scenario so far. But Delaware certainly isn’t out of the woods yet, officials say, and a failure to continue abiding by these limits could spark a resurgence. The risk is especially great for the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

With the weather growing warmer and Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer beach season for many, fast approaching, residents can’t let up now, officials stress.

Some communities in eastern Sussex have started opening their beaches, which have been shut down for the past two months to prevent large gatherings, one of Gov. Carney’s main worries.

Pressure has been mounting on the governor from ordinary citizens, Republican lawmakers and business es, as well as the highly influential chambers of commerce. Though he’s maintained the reopening process will be deliberate and guided by science, the governor has also acknowledged many Delawareans are struggling financially.

He often characterizes the First State as a state of neighbors.

“You need to understand that your actions affect your neighbors and that your neighbors’ actions affect you,” Gov. Carney said.


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 1 guidance

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