“Probably a waste” or “still useful?” Pennsylvania continues contact tracing as other states phase it out

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — On a day when Maine became the latest state to drop contact tracing, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reaffirmed its commitment to the practice — while opening the door for a pivot.

So what makes more sense: engagement or pivot?

“I don’t think contact tracing has been effective at all for this pandemic, unfortunately, and it’s probably a waste of work,” said Dr. Frederick Southwick, an infectious disease specialist based in Gainesville, Fla. , which has researched and treated COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

One problem among others, according to Southwick? The time it takes to receive test results.

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“The PCR [test] it often takes two or three days for the individual to recover…the result,” Southwick said. “Well, the cat is out of the bag as you begin your tracing.”

Southwick’s views align with a growing but not universal number of public health experts. Maine’s decision on Wednesday followed similar decisions from other states, including New York in January. There, the state stopped requiring county health departments to maintain contact tracing programs due to a “very large number of people testing positive” and a “very short window of opportunity.” intervention to disrupt transmission,” the New York State Public Health Commissioner said. said Dr. Mary Bassett at the time.

Pennsylvania spends about $20 million a year on contact tracing.

“The Department of Health is currently working to contact as many cases of COVID-19 as our community health nurses, and the contracted team of case investigators and contact tracers can assist in our jurisdiction and collect close contacts in order to conduct contact tracing,” the department told ABC27 News in a statement.

On the other hand: “While we remain vigilant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the department is also reviewing recommendations from national public health associations and organizations regarding universal case investigations and contact tracing at this stage of the pandemic”.

In other words: Stay tuned.

Not all public health experts soured on contact tracing.

“Contact tracing is always helpful,” said Tolbert Nyenswah, senior research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “States that have done contact tracing very well, those states have handled their cases well,” and vice versa, Nyenswah said.

While Southwick has called large-scale contact tracing based on PCR testing a disappointment, he is optimistic about a different kind of contact tracing.

“If we can get those home tests, those rapid antigen tests, that’s a very different ball game,” Southwick said. “Then you get the results immediately. And in fact, individuals and family can serve as their own “contact tracers.”

How?

“[Say] I become positive,” he explained. “Who have I spoken to in the last 24-48 hours? I better tell them they should get an antigen test and then if they are positive they should self isolate.

In April 2021, Pennsylvania’s contact tracing program suffered a major data breach. The state then fired the contractor it blamed for the violation.

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