Contact tracers are struggling to keep pace with the surge of positive COVID-19 cases, forcing the state to prioritize which cases get more complete case investigations, the state’s head of testing said Wednesday.
The state is working to provide help and coordinate cooperation with community groups to help in areas of the state where local and county public health officials are struggling to keep up with the deluge of new COVID cases and the contact tracing that is intended to notify those exposed to people with the virus, said Michael Huff, director of testing and contact tracing for the Department of Health.
“They are becoming overwhelmed,” Huff said.
Pennsylvania has more than 1,600 contact tracers and 150 stakeholder groups who assist with identifying and interviewing people with COVID-19, as well as providing information and support to the contacts of COVID-19 patients, he said.
The state on Wednesday reported that 6,339 more people had tested positive for COVID-19, another record. The state has repeatedly broken the record for most new cases in a day as the number of people with COVID-19 has continued to spike throughout November. State data shows that 2,904 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, which is approaching an all-time high, as well.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday joined the governors in nearby six states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island -- to announce that they are encouraging colleges to give COVID-19 tests to all students before they allow students to return home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Any student who tests positive will be encouraged to isolate on campus before they can travel or detail arrangements of their safe travel home with the local department of health.
In addition, colleges are being encouraged to make sure students are informed about the quarantine policies in their home states before they depart campus.
"It is our collective responsibility to protect our communities and our most vulnerable from COVID-19 and to continue to work together to get through this pandemic,” Wolf said. “These targeted mitigation efforts, combined with existing ones, are paramount to decreasing the spread of COVID-19."
With the surge of new people testing positive, the state is prioritizing case investigations in areas involving vulnerable populations or areas where it seems more likely that an outbreak will translate into more rapid community spread, he said.
Huff said 3.8 million Abbott BinaxNOW antigen rapid tests have been allocated to the state by the federal government.
These tests, which have been arriving in weekly allotments since October and will continue through the end of December, are being used to test and protect vulnerable populations in Pennsylvania counties demonstrating substantial risk for community spread, prioritizing counties with current outbreaks.
The state shipped these antigen tests to Bedford, Cambria, Franklin, Lancaster and Lehigh counties this week, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said. Last week, the antigen tests went to Armstrong, Dauphin, Delaware and Indiana counties.
“It is a top priority to ensure that all people in Pennsylvania who need a test will have access to one,” Huff said. “We will continue to closely monitor the number of cases in communities across the commonwealth to ensure that testing sites are situated appropriately in areas with the greatest need.”
Levine on Tuesday had announced that travelers who leave the state must get tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to their return or they must quarantine for 14 days.
Health systems, such as Geisinger Health System, have been reluctant to make COVID testing widely available to asymptomatic individuals, said Joseph Stender, a spokesman for Geisinger
“To date, we have been very careful about adhering to criteria-based testing. We do this because testing capacity is not infinite, although we do enjoy better testing capacity than most organizations in the state," Stender said. "We have opened up to asymptomatic testing in some areas where we feel it’s appropriate, like for nursing home patients or pre-surgical testing. However, we have found that most other asymptomatic testing doesn’t provide an actionable result."
With many facilities not offering COVID-19 tests to people without symptoms, state officials are urging people to avoid travel in the first place or do the research to locate a testing facility that will help them if they need to get tested, said Nate Wardle, a Health Department spokesman.
“Tests are readily available,” he said. There are now “more than 450 testing sites across the state, in addition to the weekly testing sites announced by the department,” he said.
Huff said that state officials are still struggling to get people to cooperate with contact tracing.
Some of that resistance may just be coming from people being unaccustomed to answering their cell phones when the call comes from an unfamiliar number, he said.
The problem appears to be particularly acute when it comes to trying to reach young adults, Huff said.
Huff said state officials hope that more people will begin using the state’s COVID Alert PA app which provides automatic notification when the user has been around someone who has tested positive. So far, the app has been downloaded 513,368 times.