Want to help stop the spread of COVID-19? Pick up the phone, top Pa. health official says

Michael Huff, the director of testing and contact tracing at the Pa. Dept. of Health, speaks to journalists during an online news conference on Wednesday, 11/18/20 (Screen Capture)

Helping contain the spread of COVID-19 can be easy as picking up the phone, a top Pennsylvania public health official said Wednesday. But even that can be an uphill fight.

Officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Health said Wednesday they’re continuing to have a hard time getting Commonwealth residents to cooperate with their army of contact tracers, the public health workers charged with asking people infected with the virus about the people with whom they’ve been in contact, and who then have to track those people down and urge them to monitor themselves for symptoms.

“This is a difficult time right now. Public trust is not the greatest. We want to build it,” Michael Huff, the director of testing and contact tracing at the state Department of Health, said during a conference call. “Every chance we get, we talk about the confidentiality and case investigation. It’s not something to be feared.”

But right now, many Pennsylvanians don’t see it that way.

According to the most recent Health Department data, only 21 percent, 3,244, of the 15,412 confirmed cases provided an answer to contact tracers on whether they’d spent any time at a business prior to getting infected. Of those who provided an answer, 18.7 percent said that they’d visited a business in the 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms.

That lack of cooperation comes amid an ongoing fall surge in infections. As of midday Wednesday, the Health Department confirmed 6,339 new cases of COVID-19, and 110 new fatalities. That brings the statewide total to 281,852 cases in all 67 counties since the pandemic began in March, and a total of 9,465 fatalities statewide.

And that’s put a strain on the system, Huff acknowledged Wednesday. The state has 1,600 contact tracers, who are augmented by county health office and community organizations, as well as “universities and others who do their own contact tracing.”

But “as the number of cases increase … it does put an increased strain on case investigation and contact tracing,” he said.

Speaking to journalists Wednesday, Huff said state officials had the most difficulty reaching those aged 18-35. But he added, he understood the impulse to ignore the phone if an unfamiliar number pops up.

“If my phone rings, and I don’t recognize the number, I let it go to voicemail,” Huff said. “We’re trying to address so that people see it’s the Department of Health, or a county health department” that’s calling them. He also urged people to download the state’s COVID-19 alert application.

“If you think you’ve been in contact with someone, get on the app or pick up the phone,” he 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