New Jersey’s Top Epidemiologist Says Contact Tracing Doesn’t Really Work the Way Murphy Says it Does

TRENTON, NJ – For months, Governor Phil Murphy has been touting contact tracing as one of the tools to stop the spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey by having thousands of healthcare workers making phone calls to determine contacts and how a person may have contracted the virus.

On Wednesday, State Epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan said that’s not exactly how it all works.

“Well, I think the other thing that we have to keep in mind is that a lot of times we won’t necessarily know what might be the source definitively of an individual’s infection with SARS COV-2 (COVID-19), and while we can make association sometimes between a contact and a particular case, probably I would say the vast majority of our cases you’ll never know what the actual source is,” Dr. Tan said.  “Because the fact is, as long as you have SARS COV-2 virus in the community, it’s going to be kind of hard to necessarily pinpoint where a person might have become infected.”

With failures in the contact tracing system in New Jersey, such as people not answering phone calls and refusing to give the Governor’s 1,700 or so contact tracers any information, that adds to the ineffectiveness of the initiative.

“For COVID-19, a close contact is defined as any individual who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to positive specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated,” according to the CDC.  “The public health evaluation of close contacts to patients with laboratory-confirmed or probable COVID-19 may vary depending on the exposure setting. Contacts in special populations and/or congregate settings require additional considerations and may need handoff to a senior health department investigator or special team.”

The CDC has not implemented a national contact tracing strategy, instead, it left the decisions on how to implement contact tracing up to the individual states.

Contact tracers use clear protocols to notify, interview, and advise close contacts to patients with confirmed or probable COVID-19 the CDC said.

“Implementing a robust contact tracing program is a key mechanism to break the chain of transmission and slow community spread for individuals who have come into contact with those infected by COVID-19. New Jersey will implement the following strategies to build a comprehensive contact tracing program,” Murphy said in May when he announced his plan for a large corps of contact tracers. “Implementing an expanded testing regime and robust contact tracing strategy are the underpinnings of putting New Jersey on the road back to recovery. Public health creates economic health and today’s plan will give our residents and business owners confidence that the state is prepared to move forward strategically and responsibly.”

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Unsplash

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