State ramps up tracing of COVID-19 contacts

Nicolaus Czarnecki/Boston Herald pool photoDr. Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer for Partners In Health, said knowledge about who those infected may have contacted is crucial to slowing the spread of the highly infectious disease. on the coronavirus cases in the state during a press conference at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston.

BOSTON — The state is ramping up efforts to track down people who may be at risk for contracting COVID-19 because they came into contact with an infected person.

On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker said the state is teaming up with the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health on a "first-in-the-nation" initiative to trace contacts of confirmed positive COVID-19 patients.

The program expects to deploy about 1,000 volunteers, some of them medical students, to reach out to people at risk.

"Enhanced contact tracing is another powerful tool for public health officials and health care providers in the battle against COVID-19," Baker told reporters Friday. "By monitoring and isolating through an enhanced community tracing program, our state can be positioned to reduce the number of new cases in the long run."

Epidemiologists say contact tracing can limit the spread of a virus early and prevent health systems from losing control of the outbreak. The process involves identifying contacts — friends, family and co-workers — of someone who tests positive and asking those people to self-quarantine and monitor their health.

Health officials have been doing that since the early days of the spread of the coronavirus. But the labor-intensive process became increasingly difficult for state and local health departments.

"This program we're launching today is a much more robust, targeted approach that we hope can be effective in slowing the spread of this highly infectious disease," Baker said.

Under the new system, anyone identified as a possible contact of an infected patient by the state's epidemiologists will receive a call from the "COVID-19 Community Team."

"We believe that people want to know their status," said Dr. Joia Mukherjee, Partners In Health's chief medical officer, during the briefing. "We don't want to stigmatize people; all of this is voluntary, and nothing would be coercive. This is to make us better informed and safer, and help end the epidemic sooner."

Extensive testing, paired with contact tracing, is credited with slowing the spread of coronavirus in South Korea.

Baker said the state has dramatically ramped up its testing for COVID-19 as public health officials try to get a better handle on how many people may be infected.

"We've gone from being sort of not on the board at all to being one of the largest and most expansive testers in the country," Baker told reporters earlier in the week. "I'm proud of the work that people have done on that. But we have a ton more to do."

Testing by the state, clinical and private labs has expanded in recent weeks, and Baker says Massachusetts has exceeded its goal of running 3,500 tests daily.

Baker said the state is opening a drive-through testing site at the New England Patriots' facility, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, specifically for police, firefighters and other first responders.

Health insurance companies in the state are required to cover COVID-19 testing with no co-pays under a directive issued by the Baker administration.

Of the 62,962 tests conducted as of Friday, about 16%, or 10,402 patients, tested positive for the virus, according to the state Department of Public Health. Nationwide, about 1.3 million people have been tested for the new virus as of Friday, according to estimates from the COVID Tracking Project. Public health experts say that's not nearly enough to know how widespread the outbreak is and how to respond.

For most who become infected with COVID-19, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever, aches and coughing that clears up in a few weeks. For some, particularly the elderly and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, pneumonia or death. 

The latest data suggests Massachusetts could see 47,000 to 172,000 coronavirus cases during the outbreak, and between 700 and 2,500 deaths. Baker said the projections show the virus peaking between April 10 to 20.

There were 10,402 cases as of 4 p.m. on Friday and 192 deaths. Nearly 1,000 people have been hospitalized, and more than 8,000 have been quarantined.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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