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State partners with research company to expand contact tracing

Capt. Brendan Mackie

The State of Delaware has announced a plan to ramp up contact tracing alongside testing as it moves toward a partial reopening.

Officials announced the state is contracting the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago to perform contact tracing.

Contact tracing involves tracking down the recent contacts of a person who has tested positive, then directing them to self-isolate or seek testing. Contact tracers reach out to anyone who was within six feet of the infected person for more than ten minutes up to two days prior to when the infected person developed symptoms or was tested, says Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay.

Contact tracing is considered a crucial tool to control outbreaks of the virus in the absence of a vaccine. 

“We know that we can’t stay at home forever,” said Rattay. “We know we need to evolve back into what’s becoming our new normal. But in order to be able to do that we have to test as many people as possible … and then we need to get those people isolated safely as quickly as possible, identify any of their contacts and get those contacts quarantined.”

Gov. John Carney’s goal is to start Phase 1 of Delaware’s reopening June 1. He and public health officials paint contact tracing as key to that.

“It [will be] isolating the individuals who are COVID-19 positive and their contacts, as opposed to isolating the whole community,” said Carney. 

Around 200 Delawareans will be hired to help with the effort. 

Rattay says many of those hired will need to speak Spanish or Haitian Creole. Hispanic and Latino Delawareans maintain the highest per capita rate of known cases out of any racial or ethnic group in the state. 

“It is certainly an important priority for this program that not only do we have contact tracers that can speak different languages but also that culturally can relate to people with different backgrounds,” said Rattay. “Both the workforce that’s going to be on the telephone and very importantly the … field contact tracing team, it’s going to be really important that people are from the communities in which they are working.”

One hundred members of the Delaware National Guard will help as well. They began training Monday. 

NORC is also working with the State of Maryland.  The two states plan to share information to track the spread of the virus over state lines.

“Looking at the situation with the poultry plants, we had a lot of people crossing lines— employed in one state, living in one state,” said Rattay. “To be able to track people across state lines is really important.”

Carney says the contact tracing program will cost “a lot” but no exact budget has been established. He says it will be funded with federal coronavirus relief dollars. 

“I think for all of us in public health across the nation, across the world, we’ve never ramped up contact tracing in any comparable fashion as we’re doing now,” said Rattay. 

The state announced last week a plan to increase testing to 80,000 tests per month.

This story has been updated. 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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