As Pennsylvania reopens, contact tracing will be critical to further stop the spread of COVID-19, says Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.

Contact tracing involves tracking down people who had close contact with individuals infected with COVID-19 to make sure they aren’t also carrying the infection and spreading it. Once close contacts are located, they are tested and, if positive, required to quarantine for 14 days.

Levine said the commonwealth plans to hire additional contact tracers and to use an electronic data surveillance system.

Contact tracing is a significant part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to ease coronavirus restrictions, which includes having fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people during the previous 14 days and sufficient contact tracing.

“Our testing and contact tracing plans will ensure that as we begin to safely resume our daily activities, we can do so safely and without fear,” said Levine during a recent press conference.

Testing and contact tracing are intended to isolate the people with coronavirus, so others can return to work and patronize businesses with less fear of getting sick.

“We don’t have any treatment or vaccine for this virus and the disease it causes. Absent a vaccine, contact tracing is a pillar of our strategy to manage this disease,” said Dr. Christopher Martin, a professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health, which partners with Washington & Jefferson College to offer a masters degree in biostatistics. “It’s the only tool we have to understand how the virus is spreading and limit the forward transmission of the disease.”

But there is almost no contact tracing plan at the federal level, so states across the country are trying to quickly ramp up for contact tracing, and hire and train tracers to protect communities from further spread after restrictions such as closures of non-essential businesses are eased.

Levine emphasized the state will hire additional employees for contact tracing as needed, and it will look to community health nurses, local officials, health systems and public health students for help.

Cost of the technology and staff needed to conduct the wide-scale contact tracing in Pennsylvania will be covered in part by federal funding.

The department received an $18.7 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control, which has earmarked a portion specifically for contact tracing.

Currently, there are 160 tracers for Pennsylvania, or 1.2 tracers for every 100,000 residents, according to a state-by-state analysis by NPR; 30 tracers per 100,000 are recommended during a health emergency by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Martin noted, however, that coronavirus does not follow per capita numbers, so more tracers will be needed in areas of high outbreak, and fewer in areas with smaller outbreaks.

WVU’s School of Public Health recently partnered with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health on an initiative to recruit participants for a newly developed online course, Contact Tracing for COVID-19.

Launched two weeks ago, the course aims to train a ready pool of public health investigators in West Virginia to assist with contact tracing efforts as needed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Massachusetts recently hired 1,000 people for the task at a cost of $44 million. California recently announced plans to hire and train 10,000 people to be tracers, and the state of Washington planned to have 1,500 tracers in place by this week.

WVU’s Martin said countries that have had the most successful responses to COVID-19, including South Korea, quickly implemented contact tracing.

There’s also an effort by companies such as Apple and Google to create software to enable smart phones to help with contact tracing. That, however, has raised privacy-related concerns.

“We have tools, but we don’t coordinate or act fast enough,” said Martin. “We need to be anticipatory and get ahead of the information.”

Contact tracing, though, goes hand-in-hand with testing, which, Martin said, is necessary to understand the magnitude of the disease. For contact tracing to be effective, widespread testing is necessary.

“We don’t have rapid and ready access to testing, which is a challenge,” said Martin.

Levine said the Department of Health plans to make testing widely available and to target resources where they are most in need, such as long-term living facilities, nursing homes and personal care homes.

DOH plans to continue to build network of community based testing sites, too.

Martin said contact tracers are a central part of the overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and encouraged communities to be supportive of the role they play.

“If you’re contacted and wondering why you’re getting asked these questions, it’s to protect all of us. This disease is going to be handled by a unified, collective effort. It’s all we’ve got now. There’s no miracle drug or vaccine. I think we’re a long way off from that,” said Martin, who pointed out that simple measures – including isolation, social distancing and contact tracing – are tried and true. “Everybody needs to play their role and do their part.”

Martin said the most important message he has is that public health and its infrastructure are important, and cannot be overlooked or dismantled.

“I sure hope the longstanding lesson of this outbreak is ‘never again,’” he said. “I hope we can say we’re ready for the next one.”

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