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HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania officials will on Friday unveil the state’s goal for corona virus testing and contact tracing, a standard that has so far been shunned by the Wolf administration, although it confirms that a strong system is key to its plans to reopen the country.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the test benchmarks would be “aspirational,” and stressed that that would be one of many factors in deciding which country or region could safely begin to relax restrictions on May 8.
“There will be a number of statistical and public health measures that we will observe,” Levine said on Tuesday, adding that the administration would also announce on Friday which parts of the state would be reopened.
As countries increasingly seek to end permanent orders at home and resume economic activity after the coronavirus pandemic, public health experts say that extensive testing and rigorous tracking of how people become infected are needed to prevent future outbreaks.
After announcing its plans to start reopening Pennsylvania starting May 8, Wolf’s government said that the county or region must have “adequate” testing for new corona virus cases. However, it stopped determining what was defined as “adequate.”
State officials also seem to be struggling to formulate plans to employ more contact tracers – people who connect the dots between a person with a virus and who else they might have been infected with – saying recently last week they were still considering their options .
Krys Johnson, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University, said he welcomed the news that the Wolf administration would set benchmarks.
“We need testing,” Johnson said. “We need testing for a long time. So if this is what makes testing happen, I’m 100% behind it.”
Based on Harvard’s recent estimates, Johnson said Pennsylvania might need to do around 19,000 tests per day. In contrast, over the past week, Pennsylvania has averaged around 5,500 per day – less than a third of Harvard’s benchmarks.
“We are very sad behind,” said Johnson.
The reluctance among Pennsylvania officials to elaborate on the testing objectives underscored how difficult it was for the state to draw up a clear plan to gradually and safely resume economic activity.
Difficulties have been exacerbated by testing deficiencies, lack of coordination at the federal level, and many different proposals between think tanks and public health experts about how much testing the state has to do.
The American Enterprise Institute, for example, has proposed that the country conduct around 400,000 tests per day. Meanwhile, researchers at Harvard have released at least two different proposals, one of which calls for conducting as many as 20 million tests every day at the end of July.
Don Burke, an epidemiologist and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, said the challenge for public health officials in setting benchmarks was that it was still not well understood what percentage of the population showed no symptoms when they were infected. corona virus.
To find out how large a population must be tested, that is important information.
“We are just beginning to get a clear view of the extent of the spread,” Burke said.
Under Wolf’s three-tier system to reopen Pennsylvania, a county or region with some cases can start moving out of the “red” phase on May 8. Levine said officials on Friday would announce the first area that would be allowed to enter the “yellow” area.
In that phase, many businesses will be allowed to call employees back to work, provided they provide masks and ensure social distance. But sports halls, theaters and schools will remain closed, and large gatherings are still banned.
If cases remain low in these areas, they can then enter the green zone, which can still require certain protection, such as wearing a mask in public.
But in all these stages, one thing remains constant: adequate testing and contact tracing.
At present, the local health department and state public health nurses – whose ranks have been destroyed by years of budget cuts – are tasked with doing intensive work to find out how someone might have been infected, and who else they might have. contacted.
Levine said earlier this week that the state was developing “a powerful method for contact tracing,” which he will release on Friday.
He only provided an outline of the plan, which he said would be led by public health nurses and also included district and city health departments, private health systems, and new employees and volunteers. He did not give figures at the staffing level.
Johnson, from Temple University, previously told Spotlight PA that the state needed at least 2,000 contact tracers. The state health department, which is responsible for 60% of the state population, employs only 131 people, despite asking 16 additional employees to help with tracking.
New York recently announced that it will employ 1,000 people to do this vital work, while Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky make similar efforts.
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