Gov. Holcomb, health officials detail state’s contact tracing efforts for COVID-19

Coronavirus

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Contact tracing will be the key to containing the spread of COVID-19 in Indiana, state officials said during their daily briefing Wednesday.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the Indiana State Department of Health will reach out to COVID-19 patients through email and text messages to check on their symptoms and see if they need further testing. If the individual doesn’t follow up, ISDH will call them.

“We must be able to test individuals quickly and isolate them,” Box said. “This is the way we can stop the spread.”

Contact tracing is a method for monitoring people who tested positive for COVID-19 and learning who they may have come in contact with to track the spread and the potential for new cases. Box said the state’s contact tracing platform will be in place by May 11. About 500 people will work on contact tracing and be overseen by epidemiologists.

Contact tracers will not be asking for personal identification information like social security numbers or banking information. Security experts warn people to be on the look out for scammers looking to take advantage of this situation.

“You think of all the numbers in your life aside from your telephone number, [they] are not really relevant to a health authority, but they are exactly what a criminal needs to impersonate you to obtain a loan or to reset your password at your bank,” explains Chester Wisniewski a principal research scientist at the security company Sophos.

Dr. Mark Fox, deputy health officer for St. Joseph County Department of Health, was on the call because of his experience with contact tracing.

“With the onset of COVID-19, we’ve really had to redeploy a substantial portion of our workforce in St. Joseph County to contact tracing,” Fox said.

Fox said the stay-at-home order has aided in contact tracing because many people have limited contact with others unless they work in an essential capacity.

“I think the combination of enhanced access to testing and contact tracing is really critical,” Fox said of curtailing the pandemic.

Box and Fox both said health departments will eventually have to get back to essential functions like immunizations and restaurant inspections.

“I think the beauty of this solution is combining the people skills and technology to extend this contact tracing across the state. As devastating as the health and medical consequences have been, we recognize the economic and social consequences have actually probably outpaced the medical consequences,” Fox said.

“The risk of losing people to follow up in even one to two days is a challenge. Some are very difficult to reach,” Fox said. “Our goal is to let people return to normal life but to act swiftly and get them into quarantine.”

Fox said he’s hopeful the state will have access to fast-result COVID-19 tests so that people can know immediately if they need to go into isolation instead of waiting one or two days.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever faced,” Fox said of the pandemic.

Employing another sports analogy, Holcomb said he believed the state was in the “second quarter” of the pandemic. He will meet with Vice President Mike Pence Thursday, when the former governor visits the GM plant in Kokomo. The plant shifted operations to produce ventilators during the pandemic.

When asked about meat packing plants, Holcomb said he’s been concerned about the supply chain. He said it’s important that employees at facilities such as the Tyson pork processing plant in Logansport can conduct business safely.

Holcomb expressed optimism that the Indianapolis 500 will be held in August. He said it will depend greatly on the COVID-19 trends in Indiana and nationwide.

“This is near and dear to my heart,” Holcomb said of the race, which was pushed back from its usual May date. “That’s why we’re asking people to sacrifice so much early, so that we can get on the right course and stay on the right course.”

Holcomb believes Indiana will continue to see COVID-19 cases for months. The most important thing for the state is managing those cases and making sure they don’t overwhelm local hospitals. Box said that while the number of positive cases will go up, the state is expanding testing. She wants to see a decrease in the percentage of positive tests.

Holcomb and Box said vulnerable populations will need to be especially vigilant as this pandemic progresses.

“If you’re 65 and older with underlying health conditions, you’re going to be living in a new normal for a while,” Holcomb said. “It’s not just one-size-fits-all, where we’re going to open up businesses and that’s all.”

Holcomb said updates will be coming Friday on the state’s stay-at-home order and potential plans for reopening the state economy.

Wednesday afternoon, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) reported 605 new positive coronavirus cases since yesterday, and 63 new deaths. Those numbers bring the statewide totals to 17,182 and 964 respectively. More than 91,000 people have been tested in Indiana.

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