WESTFIELD, NJ — Since the pandemic’s start, the Westfield Regional Health Department has investigated over 1,801 coronavirus cases across the eight towns it serves, its director said.
But the department’s resources continue to be strained, and the start of the academic year has led to a rise cases that are keeping the contact tracers working around-the-clock, Director Megan Avallone told the Westfield Board of Health on Monday.
Adding to the strain, Avallone said, is the department’s inability to fully staff its operation as it waits for the state to distribute federal grant monies promised to local health departments months ago.
“We will be getting eventually $122,000 for a fulltime position, but if I’m being honest, we need that position today,” Avallone said. “We’re struggling today. We’re back to all hands on deck working seven days a week.”
In addition to providing services to Westfield, the regional health department serves Chatham Borough, Fanwood, Garwood, Mountainside, New Providence, Roselle Park and Summit.
While an approximately $52,000 grant distributed through the state in May allowed the regional health department to hire per-diem disease investigators, Avallone said, the department is still waiting for the $122,000 promised to local departments statewide over the summer.
Board of health members discussed drafting a resolution urging the state to release the funds but have yet to take that measure.
In a July, the state Health Department announced it would be distributing $32.3 million in federal funding to county and local health departments to support COVID-19 response across New Jersey's 21 counties, including funds that would allow certain departments to staff the following positions: COVID Data Manager/Epidemiologist, COVID Social Support Coordinator and COVID Coordinator.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department said the state was developing a funding application for the county and local health departments.
“The Department of Health notified local health departments that we anticipated CDC funding available to support their outreach to vulnerable population (s) as part of their COVID response,” said the spokeswoman, Dawn Thomas. “Since that time, the CDC has confirmed that this funding will be available. The Department expects to have a funding application ready for the local health departments in the coming weeks.”
Speaking to Westfield’s board of health, Avallone noted that the funding challenge is not unique to her health department as the county’s health department, which her department coordinates with, faces a similar challenge.
“Union County has still not received its funding for the contract tracing supervisors either,” she said.
September Rise in Cases
The start of the academic year saw spikes in cases in Westfield where an initial six student COVID-19 cases prompted authorities to shut down in-person learning and athletics Westfield High School for two weeks. Chatham High School also temporarily suspended those activities last month as officials traced an outbreak of up to 16 COVID-19 cases to a back-to-school party.
While both schools have since resumed in-person learning, in Westfield, official confirmation of the specific source of the outbreak remains elusive, Avallone said.
“We had dozens of kids reporting exposures, and we couldn’t figure out where all those exposures were coming from,” she said. While the first six cases officials initially said were unrelated, school officials on reporting a seventh case revealed that the coronavirus infections could be connected.
They did not, however, say the cases are connected. Here’s why.
Avallone said her contact tracers had not found a definitive connection, noting that the process of contact tracing relies on people to self-report where they were and who they have had contact with. In the case of students, parents’ knowledge of their children’s whereabouts can become a key factor, she said.
“Their parents might be completely cooperative, [but] their parents might not know all their activities,” Avallone said.
For students 18 or older, the contact tracer must first notify the student, who then has the legal authority to deny the contact tracer permission to speak with his or her parents, she said.
“If they’re not going to let us talk to a parent, then there’s a really good chance we’re not getting any good information out of that individual — especially if there are other activities involved, like a party,” Avallone said.
The two-week closure of Westfield High School, and particularly the stoppage of youth athletics during that time last month, had prompted concerns among parents.
Recognizing that, Avallone explained the health department’s directive.
“Public health is preventative medicine,” she said. “You can never capture a negative, and if nobody got sick, and I am accused of that, that is criticism I’ll take because we’re preventing things.”
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