By mid-May, the state will begin a computerized system for tracing the contacts of patients with the coronavirus, and as many as 800 people will be recruited to track down the various paths the infection takes in Connecticut.
The program was announced Tuesday afternoon, amid reports of another 77 fatalities, bringing the total to 2,089 in the coronavirus pandemic. Net hospitalizations decreased by 26 patients, bringing the total hospitalized to 1,732.
Called ContaCT, the system, created in cooperation with Microsoft, will be a key to the eventual reopening of the state. A goal is to get people without symptoms to self-quarantine after confirmed contact with COVID-19 patients, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday during his daily news briefing in the state Capitol.
Lamont said doctors, hospitals and public health officials are routinely aware of those who are infected.
“We, in turn, will text or notice those people, then they have an opportunity to opt in or say no,” Lamont said. “But we’re trying to encourage them, if they care about their friends and people they’ve been in contact with, on a voluntary basis, to let us know who those people might be. Nothing is mandatory about this process, but of course the more people who participate, the more effective it is.”
The Department of Public Health currently has 300 people committed from local health departments to the new virus-tracking program. Up to 500 more volunteers will be recruited from public health programs and medical schools. Patients will be asked to fill out computerized question forms, while others will be interviewed by trackers who will be trained by the agency, said Kristen Soto, surveillance coordinator for the DPH.
It’s easier to do tracing when the number of new cases is small, as is expected by the middle of May, when Lamont gets closer to deciding issues such as the reopening of businesses and possibly schools.
Officials stressed that the tracing will be confidential.
“Local health departments as well as the state Department of Public Health will continue to receive information on all individuals in the state who test positive for COVID-19,” Soto said. “This information is already being shared as part of our reportable conditions and is in a common database. We will be integrating this data with our contact-tracing system in order to rapidly interview people who test positive for COVID.”
The program will be performed by DPH personnel and people from the 64 local health departments statewide, along with trained and credentialed people from the academic realm, including schools of public health, medicine, nursing and social work, she said.
“If a person resides in one jurisdiction and has contacts in another, that information can be seamlessly shared,” Soto said. Questions will include symptoms and dates when people became sick and who they may have exposed either just before or when they developed symptoms. Contact tracers will be trained in providing information to both infected people and contacts on what to do next.
Public support is crucial to slowing the spread, so those infected should become aware that they will be contacted through text, email or over the phone. “It is important to work with us,” she said. “And let us know about your illness as well as potential exposure to really help protect those around you. Staying home when asked to do so really is the best way to prevent the spread of this infection in the community.”
Lamont said the program will communicate with New York, and contact tracers will be trained in a new program sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Dr. Matthew Cartter, state epidemiologist and director of infectious diseases for the DPH, said that contact tracing is harder near the peak of an outbreak, which is where Connecticut is lingering still, even as hospitalizations are steadily declining. “Right now, we see a flattening of the curve and that flattening is occurring because of the community mitigation that we’ve done: the social distancing, the staying at home,” he said. “And that’s what’s driving the case numbers down.”
Cartter said that in mid-to-late May, the number of infections will decrease, while the number of tests will sharply increase. “Our goal is to do contact investigation of every confirmed case,” he said. “We know that not everyone will want to participate in contact tracing, but our goal is to reach every case, to identify every contact and ask them to participate in the contact tracing office, and to self-isolate or stay at home and self-quarantine.”
Cartter believes that Connecticut’s relatively high death rate is based on the wider-ranging method that the state records deaths.
“Connecticut is one of the states where we count not only lab-confirmed COVID-19 deaths, but we also include probable COVID-19 deaths,” Cartter said. “Many states, including states around us, do not count probable deaths. Connecticut, New York, New York City, New Jersey, Boston, Providence, we’re all seeing COVID levels that many parts of the country aren’t seeing. We are counting lab-confirmed. Some of our neighboring states do not.”
Cartter said that “a million-dollar question” is whether those who recover from COVID-19 develop immunity to further infections. “What we don’t know is whether or not immunity will be long-lasting,” he said. “Many people who recover from this infection will have immunity for months, maybe a bit longer, but we will not know until studies have been done if that’s a long-lasting immunity.”