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Pennsylvania To Distribute 4 Million Antigen Tests, Help Counties With Contact Tracing

Michael Hupp speaks at a virtual press conference Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020

As cases of COVID-19 continue to skyrocket in Pennsylvania, health officials are stressing the importance of testing and contact tracing. Michael Huff, the state’s director of testing and contact tracing, urged Pennsylvanians to respond to contact tracers investigating a case.

“When the Health Department calls you, when you think you were a contact, either get on that app [COVID Alert] and put the information in or answer the phone,” he said, referring to the state's contact tracing app.

State contact tracers only contact people who are believed to have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, according to Huff. They are advised to self-isolate and monitor their symptoms for 14 days. If symptoms arise, they’re advised to contact local health officials.

Pennsylvanians can also participate in contact tracing by downloading the state’s COVID Alert PA app which alerts users if they’ve been in close contact with another app user who has reported a positive test for COVID-19. Like other tracing apps, it uses uses Bluetooth technology, not GPS, to determine proximity to another user while ensuring privacy. 

More than half a million people had downloaded the state’s COVID Alert PA app as of Wednesday's press conference, still a small fraction of the state's 12 million residents. Officials say 268 positive cases have been reported to the app. Those reports send exposure notifications to other phones with the app if the user had been in close contact. Officials say 91 people received app notifications and 14 requested calls for more information.

The state employs 1,600 contact tracers who can support municipalities and counties struggling to keep up with surging case numbers. Huff said local health departments have requested help from the state.
“They are becoming overwhelmed," he said. "This is where we’re able to mobilize any number of those 1,600 contact tracers as well as community organizations."

A spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department said they currently have enough staff to effectively perform contact tracing.

According to data from the state Department of Health, 75 percent of close contacts were identified and effectively reached to communicate exposure and offer next steps. Nearly one in five contacts were unable to be reached.

Huff also said that Pennsylvania has so far received 3.8 million Abbott BinaxNOW antigen rapid tests from the federal government to issue to communities prioritized by risk for community spread or level of current outbreak. The tests have arrived in weekly allotments since October and will continue through December. Officials did not say how many antigen rapid tests they receive each week.

“It is a top priority to ensure that all people in Pennsylvania who need a test will have access to one,” Huff said. “We will continue to closely monitor the number of cases in communities across the commonwealth to ensure that testing sites are situated appropriately in areas with the greatest need.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.