Wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and contact tracing are keys to keeping Crawford County in the green phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Crawford County has been in the green phase since May 29, easing most restrictions, but Pennsylvania must monitor public health to keep spread of disease at a minimum. 

That's where contact tracing — the process of quickly identifying, assessing, and quarantining people who have been exposed to a disease to prevent additional transmission — comes into play.

The Department of Health has scaled up its contact tracer workforce with all Pennsylvania counties, except Lebanon County, now in the green phase. Lebanon County remains in the yellow phase.

However, Crawford County doesn't have its own health department like Erie County has, so the state uses community health nurses for all northwestern counties that do not have their own health departments, Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Department of Health, said.

There was contact tracing was in place prior to Crawford County's move to the yellow phase on May 8, Wardle said. But due to the low number of cases in the county, individuals who tested positive were advised during the case investigation to contact their close contacts and notify them of a potential exposure.

To determine how many full-time contact tracers are needed in a county, the department has developed a goal for each county that looks at the average case count for the prior seven days, the average number of contacts an individual has, and the length of time a conversation takes with each contact, Wardle said.

"Our current goal is around 600 contact tracers, using the metrics being looked at, and we currently have 518 individuals conducting contact tracing, and that number will soon increase by at least 100," Wardle said in an email to the Tribune.

The tracing investigative process usually takes at least an hour, and the contact tracing varies by the number of close contacts that an individual has, Wardle said. A close contact is identified as someone within 6 feet for 10 to 15 minutes, he said.

The more individuals a person came into contact with from the time they were symptomatic, the more extensive the amount of time to conduct contact tracing, according to Wardle.

Currently, the state is monitoring more than 4,100 contacts statewide, Wardle said.

The department is conducting case investigations and contact tracing for all new cases, according to Wardle.

"We also work collaboratively through this process with 35 partner organizations, and numerous hospital and health systems, volunteers and ultimately our community health nurses, who are the backbone of this work," he said.

The department has 130 employees conducting tracing with more than 380 trained individuals performing contact tracing across the state, he said. Those numbers include at least 255 performing contact tracing for the county and municipal health departments, he said.

There are another 280 people are training as contact tracers during the next month, he said.

More trained tracers are being assigned to areas when needed, including more contact tracers to Erie as there has been upticks in cases, Wardle said. 

"We also know that as the reopening process moves forward, our needed for contact tracers may increase to where we may need thousands of contact tracers," he said. "We are working to ensure that each individual who has been exposed to COVID-19 is contacted within 24 hours to ensure they are aware of their potential exposure, and to provide them with the information they need to prevent further spread." 

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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