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State offers $452k for local contact tracing

Essex and Franklin counties may benefit from a new $30 million grant program from the state designed to bolster local health departments’ contact tracing systems.

The state has made $201,664 in grants available to Essex County to boost its COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, and $250,945 available to Franklin County, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced on Thursday. With the new funding, both counties would have the ability to hire more staff to conduct faster contact tracing.

As a caveat for receiving the money, county health departments would be required to report local COVID-19 data with CommCare, the state’s centralized communicable disease management system. Essex County was among the first counties in the state to begin using CommCare.

Since the pandemic reached the North Country, the health department’s Public Health Unit has largely been focused on contact tracing, according to Public Information Officer Andrea Whitmarsh.

As new states have been added to New York’s travel advisory list, local health departments’ workloads have increased even more. In Essex County, the state’s team of contact tracers has been helping them, conducting follow-ups with travel-associated quarantine cases on behalf of the department. Essex County isn’t being charged for this help, according to Whitmarsh.

But before the pandemic, Public Health Unit staff worked on everything from community health assessments and planning to emergency preparedness, plus family health, environmental health, chronic disease and communicable disease programs. The pandemic infringed upon a lot of that work.

If the Essex County Health Department receives the state grant funding, it intends to hire more staff to do COVID-19 investigations and contact tracing — freeing up existing staff to return to the programs they focused on before the pandemic reached this area, Whitmarsh said.

Franklin County would likely be able to do the same thing. Franklin County Manager Donna Kissane and Franklin County Public Health Director Kathleen Strack did not respond to questions about the funding by deadline Friday.

Contact tracing, and why it matters

Contact tracing is triggered after a county health department is notified of a positive COVID-19 test result. It involves conducting a thorough interview with the person who tests positive for COVID-19, Whitmarsh said.

That interview includes “an extensive assessment of where they have been and who they have been in contact with during the period of time two days prior to the date they first started experiencing symptoms (or the date they were tested), all the way up to the point when they began isolating,” she said.

“The number of people working on contact tracing varies depending on the number of new cases reported to us each day,” Whitmarsh said.

Whitmarsh explained the power of data collection and contact tracing in response to questions from the Enterprise on May 21.

“Through surveillance (data analysis), we can quickly identify pockets or ‘hot spots’ where the virus may be taking hold in a community,” she said. “By moving rapidly to isolate the sick people and quarantine their close contacts, we can prevent bigger outbreaks and significant increases in the spread of the virus.”

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