This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

With nearly 90 new COVID-19 cases linked to young people who attended house parties at several Jersey Shore communities — and the potential exposure of hundreds more — state officials continue to encourage people to get tested and cooperate with contact tracers.

New Jersey officials have also taken steps to further strengthen the state’s capacity to perform tests and contact tracing, which public health officials use to reduce the spread of disease. While hospitalizations have continued to decline since COVID-19 peaked here in April, new cases spiked over the weekend — something officials attributed to a glitch in lab reporting — and the transmission rate, or RT, ticked up from 0.84 reported on Friday to 1.09 reported Monday.

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Last week the state Department of Health announced it has hired a Boston-based consulting company to beef up the contact-tracing workforce, although details of the deal were not immediately available.  Officials indicated that New Jersey currently has nearly 1,100 public health professionals working in this capacity (counting new hires), the majority of whom have been on the job for months with local health departments.

The DOH said it also plans to use $94 million in federal funding to help labs at Garden State hospitals expand testing capacity, with a focus on vulnerable communities; grant applications are due in less than two weeks and the state said it will announce the awards in early September. Testing is now available at more than 100 sites statewide, including community-based programs and private facilities.

Crowded house parties

While it’s not clear what is driving the recent spike in new coronavirus cases, Gov. Phil Murphy has highlighted his concerns about house parties involving crowds of young people who may not wear masks or maintain social distance.

At least 65 teens between 15 and 19 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 following a gathering last week in Middletown; another 20-plus cases are linked to a party involving lifeguards in Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island, the governor said Monday.

In addition, festivities at a residence in Jackson Township over the weekend attracted at least 500 partygoers and took law enforcement five hours to break up, Murphy said. It was not clear if any cases have been linked to the event. “Must have been quite a house,” the governor joked, adding, “You’re playing with fire if you gather indoors.”

Nearly 180,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March, including some 13,900 who have died as a result. While only two of those confirmed fatalities have involved individuals under 18, Murphy stressed that much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, including how it is spread among young people.

“There’s very little information on how this virus gets transmitted,” Murphy said. Even if young people may be less likely to die than older individuals, he noted, they can easily transmit it to more vulnerable friends and loved ones. According to the state, transmission becomes a concern if you spend 10 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected individual — even if they do not have active symptoms.

Contact tracing and trust

Reducing further transmission is where contact tracing comes in. For months, the state has relied on a group of approximately 800 public health professionals employed by local health departments, who have been tasked with calling infected individuals, gaining their trust, advising them on how to isolate and obtain services and securing from them a list of others they likely exposed to the virus. Tracers then must contact the people potentially exposed and repeat the same process of notification, education and additional tracking as needed.

In the case of the Middletown house party, Murphy said “the most distressing aspect” was that some youngsters were resistant to the contact tracers’ outreach, at least initially.

“To be perfectly clear, again, this is not a witch hunt to root out anyone who was drinking underage, although we do not condone underage drinking,” the governor said Friday. “This is a race against the clock to ensure that everyone who may have been exposed to coronavirus is identified before they infect anyone else.”

State DOH commissioner Judy Persichilli noted that contact tracers can help people to secure a place to stay if they can’t safely isolate at home and connect them with things like food assistance, child-care services and unemployment benefits. The state is also working to create a public information campaign to encourage participation.

“I want to remind the public that we need their help to make contact tracing successful. If a contact tracer calls you, please answer the call,” Persichilli said Friday. “We need to work together to keep New Jersey on the right track.”

Cranking up contact-tracing capacity

The Murphy administration has heralded the importance of contact tracing to the state’s coronavirus response for three months, since the governor first outlined his “road back” strategy to reopen the state’s public spaces and economy in late April. But progress has been slow and goals continue to evolve; at one point Persichilli suggested the state may need to hire as many as 7,000 additional tracers, but the target now appears to hover around 1,000.

Murphy has said some 50,000 people signed up to assist with contact tracing after the state posted a job description in May — the positions pay at least $25 an hour — but it’s not clear if any of these individuals have been hired. In June, the state reached an agreement with Rutgers University School of Public Health to provide training for the contact tracing corps; a number of Rutgers public health students and faculty members have already been trained and put to work as tracers.

Last week Persichilli said about 230 people have so far been hired, trained and deployed since the initiative started. A DOH spokesperson said these workers are assisting the existing cadre of tracers serving in local health departments around the state. Tracers in all 21 counties are now using a single online platform, CommCare, to report findings, the spokesperson said. Department officials are reviewing that data now and will make results public in the future.

Additional help for local tracers may be on the way. On Friday, Persichilli announced the DOH has chosen Public Consulting Group, or PCG, a group of public policy consultants who are also advising New York and other states on contact tracing, to “ensure we have the workforce needed to conduct effective contact tracing.” The deal calls for PCG to recruit employees, train them using the Rutgers model and employ them while they are working to assist local departments in their contact-tracing work, the DOH spokesperson said.

“Recognizing that the demand for contact-tracer capacity could reach into the thousands, the department solicited vendor proposals to help us scale the corps across the state,” Persichilli said Friday. “PCG will work to ensure that as many of these new contact tracers as possible come from and reflect the diversity of the communities they will be serving,” she added, noting they will seek to hire non-English speakers to help with outreach.

To read the article in the original format, click: Plans in the Works to Increase Capacity of NJ’s Contact-Tracing Corps

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