Surprisingly, as New Jersey and New York struggle to deal with increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, more and more residents are refusing to cooperate with contract tracers, despite contact tracing’s proven success in slowing the spread of SARS and Ebola outbreaks
Contact tracing tracks down anyone who might have been infected by a person who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 so those contacts can quarantine themselves and prevent further spread. New York has approximately 6,000 contact tracers and New Jersey has around 2,000 working in local and state health departments.
Public health staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contacts during the time frame while they may have been infectious.
“Without contact tracing, we can’t find individuals who’ve been exposed and advise them to quarantine,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
When someone tests positive for COVID-19, they will generally receive a call from a contact tracer. However, in New Jersey, almost 20 percent of those called don’t answer the phone or return the message left. Of those that do answer, more than 60 percent refuse to provide information about where they’ve been or the names of people they’ve been in close contact with.
New York health departments report that almost 50 percent of those testing positive do not provide names and places when called.
Why are people so reluctant to give information that is vital to help stop the spread?
“They don’t want to put their friends and loved ones in a position to have to quarantine and perhaps be out of their work for two weeks,” Persichilli said. “Some of them say ‘I want to call myself.’ Well, that doesn’t help because then we don’t have the opportunity to advise and give people the right directions.”
She said the health departments can help people get paycheck protection and a place to stay if they a place to isolate. Persichilli said others worry they’ll be asked to provide immigration status, criminal records, or social security numbers, none of which is true.
Another factor in the lack of cooperation with contact tracers is the fact that many of the recent cases of COVID-19 are people 18-45 years old. Their cases are not usually very serious. However, they are as capable of spreading the disease as any other victim.
The recent rise in cases has been attributed to students returning to colleges and not social distancing. These people are also reluctant to give names of friends to contact tracers. But, according to Persichilli, that is shortsighted.
“What if your mother or father or grandparents get it from being exposed to you and they end up in the hospital, and they end up in ICU and they end up dying? That has happened,” Persichilli said.
Health officials are also disappointed in the relatively small number of people who have downloaded the phone apps, Covid Alert NJ and Covid Alert NY, introduced last month.
“We’ve currently downloaded about 5 percent of the population. We’d like it to be 15 percent,” Persichilli said.
A phone with the app emits and exchanges a secure random code using Bluetooth. If another app-equipped phone comes within 6 feet for 15 minutes in a 24 hour period, that encounter is saved.
If one of those users tests positive for COVID-19, a public health representative will call and ask if you’re willing to anonymously notify those who you’ve encountered. If you say yes, an Exposure Alert will be sent to the other phones, advising them of the appropriate next steps, such as testing and quarantining.
Some people have expressed a reluctance to download the app because they believe it keeps track of their moves. Apple and Google, who jointly developed the COVID Alert apps used in NJ, NY, Pennsylvania and Delaware, have said the system does not act the same way a tracker does.
Complicating the efforts to get the public to embrace contact tracing is the fact that thousands of scams have been reported in New Jersey involving phony contact tracers seeking to get information from residents. State officials caution to beware of calls in which you’re asked for financial information, such as credit card numbers, social security and bank account numbers. Another sure sign it’s fraud is if you’re sent a text and a link. The Health Department will never send a text with a link.
A Johns Hopkins University study estimates each person with coronavirus infects another two to three people, making it very difficult to find everyone who could be infected. Contact tracing could help slow the spread if more people cooperated with the disease detectives.
At a press conference in August, a frustrated NJ Governor Phil Murphy said “Please folks, take the damn call. Work with them. Consider it another piece of personal responsibility we must take to defeat the virus.”
Now, two months later, that remains truer than ever.
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