VDH changes contact tracing procedure amid record case levels

Published 7:52 pm Monday, December 7, 2020

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Local health departments will be doing less contact tracing amid a record surge in COVID-19 in  Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Health said Dec. 7 it  would prioritize contact tracing efforts for specific populations due to what it said was “substantial levels of COVID-19 community transmission.”

The state’s seven-day positivity rate is 10.8% for PCR — reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction lab tests — the most common given, up from 6.1% a month ago. In Western Tidewater — inclusive of Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County — it is 9.1%, up from 4.5% a month ago.

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From Dec. 5 to Dec. 7, the state has reported 11,490 cases, including a record 3,880 cases Dec. 6. The state health department attributed the 3,793 cases reported Dec. 5 to a backlog in case reporting, though it did not do so for subsequent days. In Western Tidewater for those three days, there have been 210 positive COVID-19 cases — 129 in Suffolk, 39 in Isle of Wight, 23 in Southampton and 19 in Franklin.

The state health department said in a news release that when there is high case volume, traditional methods of contact tracing are not as effective.

Per new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it may prioritize follow-up of cases and tracing of close contacts for people diagnosed with COVID-19 — and their household contacts — in the past six days, people living or working in or visiting congregate living facilities, those involved in known clusters or outbreaks and people at increased risk of severe illness.

“As cases of COVID-19 increase across the Commonwealth, this change will allow us to deploy resources where they will have the most impact,” said Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. “We urge residents to continue to follow public health guidance on wearing masks and physical distancing, and to notify their circle of friends and family quickly if diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Oliver also implored people to answer the phone if a health department contact tracer calls. The state has hired nearly 2,000 contact tracers since May. The state said it will not be able to perform contact tracing for all cases, or call all contacts when case numbers are high, though it will follow the new CDC recommendations for contact tracing.

The state continues to call for people to wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash hands on a regular basis, while also asking people to stay home whenever possible and avoid gatherings outside one’s home. It also recommends downloading the VDH exposure notification app, COVIDWISE.

Per new CDC guidance, the state health department advises those who test positive for, or are diagnosed with, COVID-19, to self-quarantine away from others for at least 10 days, and help identify and notify close contacts while contagious. Those exposed to COVID-19 should stay at home, self-quarantine and get tested five to seven days following exposure, and watch for any symptoms.

While the state health department and the CDC continue to recommend a 14-day quarantine period, the CDC is providing two other options for a shortened quarantine for the general public — for people without symptoms to end quarantine after day 10 without testing, or after day seven with a negative PCR or negative antigen test performed on or after day five. People should still be watching for COVID-19 symptoms until 14 days following exposure, and to wear a mask, social distance and wash hands frequently.

VDH says any quarantine that is less than 14 days “balances reduced burden against a small possibility of spreading the virus.”

The state health department said it would not adopt the new guidance for healthcare workers or facilities, as CDC’s healthcare-associated infection prevention and control experts are reviewing the revised guidance. It said those people should continue to follow a 14-day minimum quarantine for a positive COVID-19 test or exposure.