OCEAN COUNTY, NJ – Authorities claim that contact tracing represents a means of reducing the spread of COVID-19. Without question, a number of people see it as a personal invasion and are vehemently opposed to it. What should Ocean County residents know about contact tracing?
“The Ocean County Health Department (OCHD) was recently notified by the New Jersey Department of Health that they are currently piloting a statewide contract program,” shared Brian Lippai, OCHD’s Public Information Officer/Chief of Administrative Services. “It is expected to go live statewide in July.”
According to Lippai, the concept of contact tracing made it into the Ocean County Health Department as early as March or April. The need for expansion became evident. In May, the county established a Disease Investigation/Contact Tracing Institute.
“Early on, we began increasing our capacity to perform COVID testing, disease investigation, and contract tracing, Lippai explained. “It has been going remarkably well.”
The OCHD has already hired between 60-65 seasonal staff members to assist with tasks associated with the pandemic. Most of them are trained as nurses. It is anticipated the cost of these seasonal employees will be 100% offset by various federal funding.
An individual who tested positive for the disease on May 11th, agreed to share her experience with the Ocean County Health Department on the condition of anonymity.
“A nurse called me and was very kind me,” shared the 63-year-old woman. “She identified herself as a nurse from the health department. She first asked how I was feeling.”
According to the patient, the health department then requested information regarding her family members and whether they were tested. The health department representative said there identities need to be revealed c because they were exposed to the virus. After securing their names., the nurse also asked if the other household members were tested and asked for their results. They were all negative.
The questions, included an inquiry as far as symptoms and her current condition. However, the confirmed virus victim was not requested to supply information about her whereabouts prior to diagnosis. This particular individual was retested and came back negative three weeks later.
At one of Governor Phil Murphy’s press conferences earlier this month, he provided more information on the overall picture of contact tracing in the state. He estimated that 1,600 contract tracers would be added to the 900 already working in local health departments. Ultimately, the state could employ as many 4,000 individuals if the need presents itself.
“Contact tracers will be trained by Rutgers School of Public Health and by the local health departments through which they may work, Murphy said. “And central to that, we will be bringing them fully up to speed on the CommCare platform.”
Murphy explained that both New York and Philadelphia use the CommCare platform, which he described as HIPPAA compliant. He emphasized that CommCare involves database management and is not a tracking application.
“CommCare doesn't track your cell phone, know your GPS location, or use any geolocation data,” Murphy stressed. “Other consumer-facing smartphone apps are not contact tracing tools. They are what is known as, and I am quoting, "exposure notification" or "digital alerting tools".
Recently, smartphone users expressed alarm upon discovering that their devices were updated with a new application named “COVID-19 Exposure Notifications.” They are set to inactive.
“(Those applications are) a way for the public to track if they have come into contact with a person who has tested positive, and also enter that information into their own phone, said Murphy. “The State of New Jersey is neither pursuing nor promoting exposure notification or digital alerting technology, at least at this time.”
According to Murphy, no one outside the state’s contact tracing program will have access to CommCare, and all the information is offloaded after 45 days to the state's epidemiological database.
Speaking on behalf of the Ocean County Health Department, Lippai confirmed that local authorities were aware that some technology had been pushed out to smartphones.
“The OCHD has not been made aware of any use of handheld Smartphone technology for the purpose of Public Health contact tracing,” Lippai said.
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