Coronavirus Tracing Efforts Hinge On People Answering Phones

BOSTON (State House News Service) — Gov. Charlie Baker had a simple message Thursday for residents looking for their "chance to fight back" against COVID-19: Answer the phone. Apparently, many people are not.

Baker, along with local and non-profit partners participating in the state's first-in-the-nation contact tracing program, said the effort will become even more important for the state to identify hot spots and track the spread of the virus as businesses start reopen.

Officials, however, said fewer than 50 percent of people diagnosed with COVID-19 and their close contacts are answering their phones on the first try by contact tracers to reach these individuals and assist them with self-isolation.

"If you get a call or a text from your local board of health or the COVID team it's vital you take that call," Baker said.

The governor added, "As we see the curve flatten we can begin thinking about permitting some businesses to resume operations and we want to reinforce that by increasing the importance of testing and contact tracing."

Despite worrisome new data reported Wednesday showing an elevated level of positive tests at 28 percent and increases in deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19, Baker said Massachusetts's week-long trend line was still positive as the state moves toward a possible May 18 reopening date for some types of businesses.

Over the past week less than 16 percent of all tests conducted have come back positive for coronavirus, which the governor said is lower than at any point in April.

Earlier in the day, the administration had released update guidance to allow golf courses to reopen in a limited capacity, and this week they green-lighted the return of small numbers of employees to some retail shops to fulfill online and phone orders.

"The first step associated with reopening where a limited number of businesses and activities can resume under new conditions can't begin unless we see sustained downward trends in many of these health care indices," Baker said.

The data points the governor said he is monitoring include hospitalization rates, ICU capacity and fatalities.

"Yesterday's numbers are evidence that despite some signs of trending in the right direction, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to getting to the point where we feel like we have our hands and our arms around this virus," Baker said.

Nowhere is that more evident, according to one public health official, than in Worcester and Central Massachusetts where the numbers are less encouraging than the overall statewide trends.

"We are actually in the teeth of the surge," UMass Memorial Medical Center's Dr. Michael Hirsh said, during a Facebook town hall hosted by Sens. Harriette Chandler and Michael Moore. "Boston is ahead of us. Springfield to the west is ahead of us. We got sandwiched in the middle and for some reason our surge is occurring later than Boston's."

Hirsh, the medical director in Worcester's Division of Public Health, said all the critical data points at UMass Memorial and the field hospital at the DCU Center are on the rise, including the number of positive tests, number of occupied ICU beds, ventilators in use and deaths.

The hospital, he said, is seeing an average of 85 cases a day, and the number of patients being treated at the DCU Center has gone from about 20 or 30, on average, to 50.

"Now is not the time to take the foot off the peddle," Hirsh said.

He added, "Everyone is jumping the gun. I understand everyone's patience is running thin. It's very difficult to be as compliant as our region has been."

Hirsh said he is working with the city of Worcester to set up an antibody testing program, that will start with city workers, to enable the city and the region to begin returning to work safely when the curve begins to flatten, which he estimates won't be until June 1 at the earliest.

Baker used his press briefing on Thursday to highlight the important role contact tracing will play in successfully and safely reopening the Massachusetts economy. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders previewed a digital public service advertisement that will be used in multiple languages to encourage participation with contact tracing.

"It's a phone call. It's a conversation. It's about getting help for you and family," said Damon Chaplin, director of public health for the city of New Bedford.

The contact tracing collaborative, which is a partnership between the Department of Public Health, local boards of health and the non-profit Partners in Health, has 1,600 people making phone calls every day.

DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel said the effort has shown that social distancing in Massachusetts is working.

"We know that because of the number of contacts we are now having to trace," Bharel said.

The median number of close contacts with someone confirmed to be infected is two, officials said.

The phone calls from the tracing team should come from an 833 or 857 phone number and the caller ID should display MA COVID Team. The state worked with telecommunications carriers on this to reach customers conditioned to ignore calls from unknown contacts because of the volume of SPAM calls they receive.

So far, the collaborative has connected with 14,000 individuals with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and reached out 7,500 of their close contacts.

John Welch, of Partners in Health, said the contact tracing team is making 10,000 calls a day, but could reduce that volume if more people answered on the first try.

By Matt Murphy, State House News Service

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