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Employers and schools still tracking COVID cases after Onondaga County and NY State end contact tracing

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Onondaga County officials are trying to clear up confusion about changing COVID-19 contact tracing protocols as the number of new cases continues to rise. On December 31st, the county said it would no longer be calling individuals to trace infections. The state followed suit Tuesday. But Health Commissioner Dr. Indu Gupta says this doesn’t mean workplaces or schools stop their own contact tracing. She says schools are doing a great job tracking infected and exposed students and staff.

"We have not done it in at the least 6 to 8 months. They are doing it, they give us the list, and give us the official isolation and quarantine order. They will still do that, and I had a couple of calls with them. I clarified that when the Governor says there's no contact tracing, it doesn't mean you're going to stop what you're doing. It means you won't get an official order from us. That's the difference."

And, it seems to be working. County Executive Ryan McMahon says tracing combined with asymptomatic testing in schools are keeping infection rates very low, and most kids in classrooms.

"We have not seen positive rates really elevate at any point. I think 1.5 percent was the higher end range of this. When you compare that to 20 percent or higher in the community, these buildings...not saying that transmission does not occur, but it is rare."

McMahon says the county continues to work with districts on test-to-stay programs so exposed students can stay in class if they test negative. Dr. Gupta says most employers, large and small, are also doing amazing work identifying cases, isolating, and quarantining.

"People have done such a beautiful job in making sure that they're protecting their workforce for the most part. I think that's what I'm asking them to continue to do. In the absence of that we'll see a significant uptick in cases, which will forcibly close their operation for several days. I don't think they want that."

In fact, Gupta says most employers have contacted her office first when employees get infected. She says her department remains engaged at the organizational level, offering their support and expertise. The county will be distributing 21,000 high-quality masks to schools for teachers and staff, and 60,000 to nursing homes and other adult care facilities.

NY ENDS CONTACT TRACING
By Karen DeWitt

New York state will no longer do contact tracing when someone tests positive for COVID-19, Governor Kathy Hochul said this week. The change comes as the state launches a new website to provide guidance on when someone should take a test, and what to do if their result is positive.

Hochul says the omicron variant of the virus spreads very rapidly and has a shorter incubation period before symptoms appear. Because of that, she says, the contact tracing methods used earlier in the pandemic are no longer effective in disrupting transmission chains. The tracing had been largely carried out by county health departments.

“We are going to be allowing counties to decide if they want to contact trace. We'll leave that optional for them. It's not a requirement,” Hochul said. “It's just saying that they're not obligated to do it anymore."

Hochul says the overstrained local public health departments need to focus their energy and resources on convincing the remaining unvaccinated New Yorkers to get their shot, increasing the number of people who get booster shots, and coordinating testing sites and the distribution of at-home testing kits.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett says from now on, if a person tests positive, they should no longer expect a follow-up call from health officials.

We're moving to more self-management when a person has either tested positive or been exposed to someone who tested positive, and less active outreach by departments,” Bassett said.

The health commissioner says the person should instead contact a new state website that offers guidance, based on federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations, for isolation and quarantine procedures.

Earlier in the pandemic, former Governor Andrew Cuomo partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Vital Strategies to set up a statewide contact tracing program, which he at the time called a “a nation-leading initiative.” Cuomo resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal.

Bassett said the new site offering guidance on quarantine procedures would launch Wednesday morning, but by afternoon, the address ny.gov/isolation or ny.gov/quarantine still linked to the now-defunct state contact tracing site.

The state health department did not return a request for comment.

Adam Shrier, a spokesman for New York City’s contact tracing program, NYC Test & Trace Corps, says the city will continue its contact tracing program, saying “our mission ends when the pandemic does.” Outreach will be done via text messages.

BY THE NUMBERS

Eight more people died of COVID-19 in Onondaga County in the last 24 hours as the omicron variant continues to ravage the community. Hospitalizations dropped slightly to 216, four of them children. Of those in the hospital, 46 percent are unvaccinated. Thirty-nine people are in intensive care; 27 of them are unvaccinated.