‘Answer the call’: Pa. Health Secretary Levine says to those stymying COVID contact tracers

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine briefs reporters on Monday, 10/26/20 (screen capture)

Pennsylvania’s top public health official pleaded Thursday with state residents to cooperate with contact tracers working to track and contain the spread of COVID-19.

“My message today to Pennsylvanians is to answer the call,” state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said during a conference call with journalists. “If you test positive, when an investigator reaches out to you, answer the call to participate. This interview is completely confidential, but you could save a life by answering who you have been in contact with, or the places you have been. Yes, they may tell you you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive, and you have to stay home for 14 days. But even if you never get sick, you can save a life.”

Seventy-one percent of people interviewed by public health workers did not completely answer questions about whether they’d frequented a business or had attended a mass gathering in the 14 days before showing symptoms, the Associated Press reported Monday.

As of midday Wednesday, Levine’s office confirmed 2,202 new cases of COVID-19 statewide, bringing the total number of cases to 202,876 in all 67 Pennsylvania counties. On Tuesday, the state charted its highest, one-day total of cases, with 2,751 testing positive, the Capital-Star previously reported.

Levine’s office confirmed 8,762 fatalities since the start of the pandemic, an increase of 44 fatalities from the most recent tally.

The rate of those not cooperating with tracking efforts rose from 61 percent three weeks ago. It comes amid a fall surge of cases statewide, and false messages on the campaign trail from President Donald Trump, who has claimed the nation has turned the corner on the worst public health crisis in a decade, even as the nation has charted 8.93 million cases and 228,000 fatalities.

According to Bloomberg News, people have been reluctant to cooperate with contact tracers because they wrongly believe them to be identity thieves or that the government is trying to track their movements. But the decades-old public health practice is a critical part of containing the virus, and similar efforts have been successful in such countries as South Korea and Taiwan, Bloomberg reported.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has seen a rise in hospitalizations, with 1,187 people now hospitalized, 114 of whom are on a ventilator, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

While Pennsylvania has not seen the spike in hospitalizations in other states, such as Wisconsin, where the crush is so bad that the Badger State is set to run out of ICU beds in two to six weeks, Levine said Thursday that it’s still critically important for state residents to be mindful and practice social distancing.

“We’ve seen an increase in hospitalizations. We haven’t been as challenged as in the spring. Health systems can be challenged. We are not done with COVID-19,” she said.

As she did earlier this week, Levine again urged Pennsylvanians to reconsider their holiday plans.

“I understand it is a sacrifice to ask individuals and families not to gather outside the people who live in their homes, but that’s what we are asking people to do,” Levine said.

And while the stream of data can seem numbing, Levine urged Pennsylvanians to remember that every case is a person, and that every death impacts a family.

“There is a collective responsibility we all have to stand united against COVID-19,” she said.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press