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Quarantine, Contact Tracing Help Health Department Anticipate New COVID-19 Cases

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Dr. Michael Mendoza. Provided photo

Another day, another record number of COVID-19 cases in Monroe County.

On Dec. 3, the county health department announced 654 new cases. That may be the beginning of the Thanksgiving surge, according to health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza.

Cases are not reported the same day as the test is performed, so there is a lag. But records have been set most days in the previous week.

“In the coming days, I think we’re going to see continued numbers from the Thanksgiving weekend,” he said. “I told my staff to plan on 100 to 150 additional cases every day. If I’m wrong and that’s an overestimate, great. But we do need to plan.”

One potential planning tool is the number of people in quarantine – meaning people who were exposed to someone who was COVID-positive.

Someone in quarantine doesn’t have symptoms. They may develop the illness, even if they don’t show symptoms. Mendoza said that upward of 30% to 40% of new cases come from people in quarantine.

“We look at that from a planning standpoint,” Mendoza said. “It tells us how we’re doing with our contact tracing efforts, and we want to increase that as much as we can. It’s also a measure for the community. If we’re able to do contact tracing perfectly … we will have fewer people who develop COVID outside of quarantine. That would be the goal.”

Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for a 14-day quarantine, although the federal agency is reconsidering that for some circumstances.

As of Dec. 3, the county had 3,592 people in quarantine and 3,888 active cases, according to the county COVID-19 dashboard. The people in quarantine are the contacts of the people with active cases.

As cases are expected to rise from Thanksgiving and more than likely Christmas gatherings, the number of people in quarantine is expected to rise. If that’s the case, then are those people the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, signaling whether trouble is ahead?

“Those people in quarantine are the ones we contact to follow them through the course of their 14-day quarantine period,” Mendoza said. “Our hope is people will abide by their quarantine. If they do develop symptoms, they will have already been out of circulation — out of the community, not at work, not at school, not in grocery stores. That is goal.”

Here is a summary of the Dec. 3 news conference with Mendoza and County Executive Adam Bello:

Contact tracing

Mendoza said contact tracing is a cooperation between the health department and community members who remember and share the names of people they’ve been around.

On average, each new case results in two or three contacts. With new cases between 500 and 600 in the past few days, about 1,000 to 1,800 people have to be called.

Getting ahold of them is not easy. Mendoza said in recent days, more people are unhelpful.

“We get hang-ups, we get foul language, we get very unpleasant behavior and it’s unfortunate because our hardworking staff has to deal with this,” Mendoza said. “It’s a sad state, frankly, with where our community is with regard to cooperation.”

More workers being added

Bello said 100 more full-time temporary workers are being added to the health department to do data entry and follow-up with people in quarantine and isolation. That number is in addition to 50 workers already approved for hiring. Bello said the mid-year budget adjustments freed up money to pay for the workers.

Information about applying for the jobs is at www.monroecounty.gov.

Flattening the curve

Bello and Mendoza repeated their pleas for people to wear masks, stay physically distant and be only with people from their household as ways to slow the increase in cases. Bello urged people to return to the practice of Zoom or Facetime visits and driveway chats.

Mendoza said the curve doesn’t refer only to the need for hospital beds and ventilators.

“It refers to the capacity represented by the people – the nurses, the respiratory therapists and the doctors – who stand ready, though tired, ready to take care of us in our time of need.”