Health district prioritizes contact tracing

Published 10:07 pm Friday, April 3, 2020

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Citing the need to prioritize limited resources, the Western Tidewater Health District ceased providing details on new COVID-19 cases in its district on March 31.

The district also said it won’t be able to report how many local patients recover, as many of them will do.

For the first few cases, the district had provided details on the ages and genders of new cases, and in most cases had provided details on how it was suspected the person had acquired the virus — such as a travel history or a close contact who had the disease.

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For instance, the first case in the district, reported March 19, was a Suffolk man in his 50s who had recently returned from a trip to New York.

The next case, a 27-year-old woman from Smithfield, was reported the following day. She had been informed she was a contact of another positive case and later developed symptoms.

The details kept coming until March 30, when the district said two Suffolk women — one in her 40s, one in her 70s — had tested positive and were exposed due to close contact. They were somewhere around the eighth and ninth cases.

On March 31, when trying to follow up on more new cases, the Suffolk News-Herald was informed no more details would be released on new cases, and that recoveries would not be reported, either.

As of the April 3 update, the Western Tidewater Health District has 28 cases — 11 in Isle of Wight County, 10 in Suffolk, four in Southampton County and three in Franklin.

Dr. Todd L. Wagner, director of the Western Tidewater Health District, said the district’s staff has to prioritize its limited resources.

“I understand there’s a need and a desire to have visibility on the cases out there,” Wagner said in a phone interview Friday morning. “It’s just not tenable at this time for us to have to present each case as they pop up.”

Wagner said the number of cases will still be reported in the Virginia Department of Health’s daily update, but details will not be readily available.

The first priority of the staff is to do contact tracing on new cases, Wagner said. The length of that process varies based on how many people the person has come into contact with.

“Some are a little more straightforward than others,” he said. “Others may take a little bit longer. But we’re pretty persistent on following up with things.”

Contacts considered at high risk for infection are asked to take their temperature once a day and check in regularly, Wagner said. Those with actual positive results are also checked on regularly.

Regarding recoveries, Wagner said that while the health district is “certainly very hopeful” all patients will recover, “to track patients to completion is not tenable.”

In addition, because testing capabilities have been so slim and so many with the disease are asymptomatic or have only very mild symptoms, any number of recoveries — like the number of infections in the first place — will be inaccurate.

In addition to responding to the pandemic, the district continues most of its regular services at the Isle of Wight County and Franklin offices. The other two offices, in Suffolk and Southampton County, are closed to the public because they share a building with the locality. However, those two offices continue to offer limited, necessary services like WIC.

Many staff have been called away from the clinical operations to help with contact tracing, Wagner added.

He urged everyone in the community to continue self-isolating, whether or not they are positive for COVID-19 or have a contact who is. If everyone self-isolates except for the bare necessities, it will help, he said.

“That’s really the best strategy,” he said. “There really is an active role for every member of the community, to do their part and do what they’re being asked to do — stay at home and avoid contact with others.”