New York health officials are rolling back the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing program and diverting more resources toward testing and vaccinations, Health Commissioner Mary Bassett announced Tuesday.
Contact tracers will no longer call people who test positive for the virus and instead launch a new website Wednesday offering guidance for the public and employers that still aligns with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the state’s top doctor.
“We’re moving to more self management when a person is either tested positive or exposed to someone who tested positive, and less active outreach by departments,” said Bassett during a Jan. 11 COVID briefing with Governor Kathy Hochul.
The fast spread of the highly-contagious Omicron variant and the tens of thousands of new positive cases every day make it challenging for local health departments to reach out to every infected people quickly enough to prevent further spread, according to officials.
“It is almost impossible to do contact tracing the way we have been in the past,” Hochul said. “It spreads throughout the community in a way that it doesn’t make sense to have the resources of the local public health departments, who’d rather be giving out vaccinations and testing, so they can move on to other responsibilities.”
Despite case numbers starting to plateau, the state still got 48,686 positives back on Monday, a more than fourfold increase from the daily rate at the beginning of December.
Omicron has a very short incubation period, the time between when someone’s infected and when they start showing symptoms, meaning it’s difficult for public health workers to call and give health guidance quick enough.
“The result is a very large number of people who’ve tested positive, a very short window for intervention to disrupt transmission, which is the purpose of contact tracing and breaking the transmission chain,” Bassett said.
The shift comes after local health departments asked Hochul to be allowed to redirect their efforts amid mounting case counts.
“We are going to be allowing counties to decide if they want to contact trace, it’s fully optional for them, it’s not a requirement, it’s just saying that they’re not obligated to do it anymore,” said Hochul. “Should they decide to continue, they’re more than welcome to.”
Former Governor Andrew Cuomo launched the state’s contact tracing program during the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020, aiming to deploy thousands of volunteer “tracers” who call people infected with the virus and tell them to quarantine in order to prevent further spread.