Gov. Cooper launches effort to test for and trace coronavirus

Last Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper outlined the benchmarks North Carolina needs to accomplish first before reopening business during the pandemic. In the press conference, the governor stated that expanded testing capacity, ability to trace contact of all infected people, and improved trends — in terms of the number of cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and the availability of medical supplies  — must be met in order for the state to ease restrictions. 

Both the governor and health officials are stating that the three “T” approach is needed to protect vulnerable residents from a second wave of the virus.

From WSOC:

Expert modeling has shown it would be dangerous to lift the restrictions all at once because it would increase the chances that hospitals become overwhelmed and unable to care for severely ill patients. Cooper emphasized that changes in restrictions must protect public health, especially those who are most vulnerable to severe illness, including people over age 65, those with underlying health conditions and people living in congregate settings.

“Our new normal relies on an increase in testing capabilities to isolate and track new cases of COVID-19,” said Cooper.

According to Cooper, that means adding supplies and lab capacity and antibody testing to show who’s had the virus, but he didn’t say a number.

State planning relies on an increase in testing capabilities to identify, isolate and track new cases of COVID-19. This means having the supplies and lab capacity to do more testing across the state. Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has brought together laboratory partners from the public and private sector to coordinate efforts to ensure testing — diagnostic and antibody — is widely available across the state while also conserving protective equipment.

“We have to boost our public health workforce to trace and track new cases,” said Cooper.

This is time-intensive work, tracking down all of the people who patients have come in contact with. Currently, just 150 people in local health departments are doing that work.

Tracing requires the state to boost the public health workforce and the ability to trace contacts of new cases of COVID-19. Contact tracing can be effective at containing new outbreaks, but it requires more personnel. When a person tests positive, the tracing efforts will help identify who that individual may have been in contact with so those people can get tested and take the right precautions. NC DHHS is working with its partners to increase this critical piece of our public health workforce. New digital tools can also help scale this effort.

Cooper said the state will partner with hospitals and universities to get enough people to do that, tracing work on a larger scale.

In order to ease restrictions, the state needs to understand how COVID-19 is impacting the state and impacting specific populations and regions of the state to determine when to strengthen or ease social distancing policies. Trends that will influence policy decisions will be based on data like the new positive cases, hospitalizations, deaths, as well as the available supply of personal protective equipment, hospital capacity.

“Because we acted early and because we acted together, we have averted the devastating scenarios we have seen playing out in other parts of our country and across the globe. We now need to look ahead at how we stay ahead of the curve. Widespread testing, aggressive contact tracing, and data-informed policy decisions are our best tools to keep our communities safe and protect our frontline workers,” said NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, MD.

Currently, North Carolina and university hospitals across the state including, University of North Carolina, East Carolina University and Duke University are conducting  collaborative research by using testing and tracing to see how far COVID-19 has spread in the state.

Over 13 labs and hospitals around the state have completed more than 73,000 tests — an increase of 88 percent from two weeks ago.

Yet, North Carolina along with other states’ efforts to combat the virus, are continuously hampered by the federal government’s lack of test kit distribution.

Due to inconsistencies from the federal government’s response, state governors and health departments like North Carolina are having to rely on collaboration with public and private partners in order to protect the health and safety of their state. 

In order to keep North Carolina safe, we need more testing, tracking and treatment to protect everyone’s health. We are all better off when we are all healthy — especially the most vulnerable among us, so let’s guarantee everyone’s safety before reopening businesses.

Alanna Joyner