Although much of the conversation around the coronavirus lately focuses on vaccinations, officials are urging residents not to overlook one key component of the fight against COVID-19, contact tracing.
“We’re not getting a very good response rate for contact tracing,” Supervisor Kevin Hansan said during a town board meeting earlier this month. “I know that it can be unpleasant, and it might mean you have to quarantine, but it’s better to have the information than not have the information.”
In a newsletter sent to residents, Mr. Hansan said he was asked by health officials to remind all residents of the importance of taking calls from New York and Westchester County Health Department officials. “They are calling you because you may have tested positive or been exposed to someone who has tested positive,” Mr. Hansan wrote. “Their role is not to be intrusive; it’s to give you the information you need to stay healthy and to help control the spread of the virus in our community.” The supervisor added that effective contact tracing was “vital if in-person schooling and school sports are going to be able to succeed.”
While the number of active COVID-19 cases has declined in Westchester County, Pound Ridge has been holding fairly steady. Since the new year, the municipality has been averaging 12 new active cases a week. According to data from the Westchester County DOH compiled by Katonah resident, Matt Herman, Pound Ridge is averaging 1.3 new active cases daily; Lewisboro is averaging 2.9 new cases daily; and Bedford is averaging 5 new cases daily.
Given the magnitude of the virus spread and plans to relax some mitigation controls such as remote learning and limited restaurant dining, contact tracing is critical to protect communities from further spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contact tracing has been used as a core disease control measure employed by local and state health department personnel for decades against infectious diseases. This public health strategy was used during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the spread of H1NI influenza in 2009, and the SARS outbreak in 2003. Today it is considered key to preventing further spread of COVID-19, but it only works with cooperation and engagement from the public.
In New York state, contact tracers have been hired and trained to work with state-of-the-art software to gather information on the spread of the infection. These individuals are charged with contacting all people who have had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. In the instance that one tests positive, the tracer will work with the individual to identify, and reach out via phone and text, to anyone who has come in contact with the subject during the infectious stage. The tracer might also monitor the subject’s symptoms through follow-up calls and text messages.
According to the communications office of Westchester County Executive George Latimer, the Westchester County DOH uses a protocol of calling three times in a row, at different times of day, for multiple days before moving on from the case. Health department employees also check databases for alternative numbers if they are having difficulty reaching individuals. The percentage of case interviews completed each week roughly ranges between 55% and 65%, according to county officials.
After Janet Donohue, the Lewisboro town clerk, had a member of her household test positive, she was contacted a few days later by a tracer who advised her to quarantine from work, distance herself from the positive carrier, and wear masks when using shared space in the house. Ten days after the initial phone call, the contact tracer reached out to household members again. The tracer evaluated the positive carrier’s symptoms over the phone and advised Ms. Donohue that the quarantine would be lifted that evening.
Contact tracing in local school districts involves a multi-faceted approach. Building administrators are the first to identify all students and staff who are believed to have been direct contacts of COVID-positive individuals at school. The school then notifies those students and staff of the initial need to quarantine.
Those names are also shared with the Westchester County DOH. In an email, Andrew Selesnick, superintendent of Katonah-Lewisboro School District, wrote that “sometimes there is back and forth with the DOH to determine whether an individual is truly a contact or not.” Once the list of names is finalized, the Westchester County DOH shares the list with New York state contact tracers, who make follow-up phone calls to individuals about their quarantine status.
Town and health department officials stress the following reminders about contact tracing, testing, and exposure to the virus:
- Community members should answer the phone if they see a number with a 518 area code (which includes Albany) or "NYS Contact Tracing" displayed as the caller ID.
- If you or a family member have tested positive and missed a call or did not receive a call, it is advised you contact the Westchester County DOH at 813-5110. In addition, if someone in your family who is a student has tested positive, you should report the positive result to the child’s school.
- If you know you were exposed to someone who tested positive, even if you haven’t received a call, you should quarantine for at least 10 days and continue to monitor symptoms for 14 days.
- A negative test means you are negative at the time of the test. Even after testing negative at first, an individual can test positive any time from two to 14 days after being exposed.
- Stay home for the duration of your quarantine time.
For more information, visit coronavirus.health.ny.gov/new-york-state-contact-tracing.