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As Hospitals Prepare For COVID-19 Surges, Some Are Reluctant To Speak With Contact Tracers

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA News
Dr. Donald Whiting, Allegheny Health Network's chief medical officer, speaks at a COVID-19 press conference at Point State Park. (11/12/2020)

As COVID-19 cases spike across Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health says members of the public are increasingly reluctant to cooperate with contact tracers – and local public health workers say they are also encountering greater push back.
“People will hang up, or they will yell at us that there is no such thing [as the coronavirus]. It’s various comments,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, director of Allegheny County’s health department, during a press conference Thursday at Point State Park.

This hostility towards public health workers comes as coronavirus case numbers hit record highs on a near-daily basis. On Thursday, Allegheny County's daily count exceeded 400 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, while Pennsylvania reported more than 5,000 new cases.

After a person tests positive for the coronavirus they receive a call from a case investigator, who asks the patient about the places and people they visited while they were contagious. Then a contact tracer calls the people who were exposed to the virus.

The county health department said the majority of people respond to these calls. But sometimes entire groups won’t pick up their phones.

“For instance people have decided – who attended a particular party – that aren’t going to take our calls en masse,” Bogen said.

Four heads of Pittsburgh-area health systems joined Bogen at the briefing. Allegheny Health Network, Heritage Valley Health System, St. Clair Hospital and UPMC all say they’re seeing increases in COVID-19 patients.

Since Pennsylvania’s significant spike in cases this spring, the medical systems say they have stocked up on equipment, including face masks and ventilators. And they have created contingency plans to care for patients during surges in COVID-19 illness.

Despite these preparations, the physicians all implored the public to adhere to mitigation efforts like wearing masks and not socializing with people outside their households.

“We need our people to be at work to take care of the people who develop COVID over this time,” said Dr. Donald Whiting, AHN’s chief medical officer. “I think moving forward, our issue is going to be staffing and keeping people healthy.”

On a positive note, the fatality rate for COVID-19 has decreased since the start of the pandemic. That is in part because scientists have identified therapeutics, such as steroids and monoclonal antibodies, that aid a patient’s recovery.

But health officials say the more the virus circulates in the community, the more people will die or suffer long-term medical issues.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.