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Connecticut to recruit hundreds of volunteers for COVID-19 contact tracing

Connecticut soon will roll out a system to trace COVID-19 infections that will involve hundreds of public health officials and trained volunteers reaching out to find out who residents who test positive for the virus have come into close contact with.

The plan, as currently envisioned, will go as follows: After someone tests positive for the virus, that person will be contacted by phone, email or text message and asked to fill out a questionnaire listing close contacts and when symptoms of the virus started to appear. Then the person and his or her close contacts will be asked to self-isolate, but that will not be mandated.

The system will help prevent “small clusters or individual cases from turning into larger community outbreaks,” and those who are asymptomatic from unknowingly spreading the disease, said Kristen Soto, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health.

The state will use 300 tracers from DPH and the 64 local health departments in Connecticut, and anticipates recruiting 400 to 500 volunteers, Soto said, and would continue "to evaluate the need for additional volunteers or staffing."

As part of the tracing effort, the department has developed software with Microsoft called ContaCT that will enable the “rapid” sharing of infection information among DPH and the local health departments, Soto said. The software is expected to be rolled out statewide by the third week of May.

Gov. Ned Lamont said during his daily afternoon briefing Tuesday that while contact tracing “can sound like Big Brother,” the system is not new, and it is viewed by public health experts as a “tried and true” method of limiting the spread of infectious diseases. The governor himself has expressed privacy concerns, though, and has emphasized the system is voluntary.

Contact tracing is difficult to do during a peak in infections, which is the case in Connecticut right now, said Dr. Matthew Cartter, state epidemiologist and director of infectious diseases for DPH. Contact tracing will kick into high gear in mid- to late May, when the number of COVID-19 cases is expected to be decreasing and testing is expected to drastically ramp up.

“We know not everyone will want to participate, but our goal is to reach out to every case and ask them to participate in the contact tracing process,” Cartter said during Lamont’s briefing Tuesday.

By the end of May, the state hopes to be performing about 50,000 tests a week, “a dramatic expansion from where we are right now,” Cartter said. Currently, about 2,000 tests are administered daily in Connecticut.

The turnaround time for test results, which several weeks ago was seven to eight days, now is about three days, Cartter said. Faster test results are key to the contact tracing process because the state will know sooner when someone has tested positive for COVID-19, he said, and that will help curb the spread of the disease.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 92,745 tests were reported and there were 26,312 confirmed cases statewide, an increase of 315 from the numbers reported Monday, which Lamont said was the lowest number of positive cases in a single day that the state has had in weeks.

For the sixth day in a row, the number of patients hospitalized statewide due to COVID-19 decreased, by 26 to 1,732, and there were 2,089 coronavirus-associated deaths, an increase of 77 from Monday’s numbers.

In New London County, there were 530 confirmed cases and 34 associated deaths. As of Tuesday, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital was treating 26 confirmed COVID-19 patients, while Westerly Hospital was treating six. Backus Hospital was treating 11.

Asked about Connecticut’s high rate of COVID-19-associated deaths, Cartter said a big reason is the state’s death count includes both those who’ve tested positive for the virus around the time of their death as well as those whose deaths the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determines, after an investigation, are probably linked to the virus. He said many states, including those surrounding Connecticut, only report lab-confirmed deaths and don't count probable deaths.

On Wednesday, Lamont said, he will be joined at his daily briefing by two residents who tested positive for COVID-19, who will share their experiences of contracting the coronavirus that causes the disease — putting a face to the positive cases in the state.

j.bergman@theday.com





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