County Needs More Contact Tracers To Reopen

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Nassau County Executive Laura Curran briefs the public on the ongoing pandemic.
(Photo courtesy of the office of County Executive Laura Curran)

Throughout last week, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has claimed the county currently meets five out of the seven requirements needed to begin reopening in accordance with New York State guidelines. In truth, the county currently only meets four of seven requirements.

Currently, Nassau County and Suffolk County, which are being treated as one region by the state and must meet all guidelines together, have managed to bring total hospitalizations down for more than 14-straight days, increase the number of both general hospital beds and ICU beds available to acceptable numbers and conduct testing at a sufficient rate to meet state mandates. The county executive has acknowledged the region has not yet managed to lower COVID-19 death rates or hospitalization rates to within state parameters but remarked that Nassau can “sort of tentatively check” off the requirement that the county has enough contact tracers to adequately track the movements and activities of people who test positive for coronavirus at a May 12 press conference.

“We need to have 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents, which means here in Nassau County we have to have more than 400 contact tracers,” Curran said. “The state has put us in the ‘expected to get there’ category. We have 50 and we will work with the state to identify additional tracers.”

Although neither Nassau nor Suffolk have hired enough contact tracers to meet state requirements, both county governments and local media outlets have consistently included the requirement that the region has a sufficient number of contact tracers as one of the requirements the region has already fulfilled. Representatives from the county executive’s office were asked to clarify why this is the case, but did not respond prior to publication. 

The New York State Department of Health is looking to hire additional contact tracers who will work remotely to call people diagnosed with COVID-19 to determine who they have been in contact with to help lower the spread of coronavirus. Anybody looking to apply for the job can visit www.bit.ly/2zxwhdd to do so. 

Nassau County Department of Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein praised the efforts of the county’s 50 contact tracers up to this point and said increasing the resources put towards that effort will be essential to minimizing risk when the county reopens.

“When there is a case, we’ve got to be very thorough in making sure we find the source and making sure the disease doesn’t spread,” Eisenstein said. “With those methods in place, we believe we can advance safely.”

Dr. Jaymie Meliker, an epidemiologist and public health professor with Stony Brook Medicine, explained that contact tracing can help contain a pandemic, but only if it’s implemented early enough.

“Epidemiology 101 is contact tracing,” Meliker said. “Contact tracing can work, but you have to put the resources in and you have to get it early. Once it spirals, it’s impossible without basically going into lockdown.”

Although the May 15 expiration date of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statewide shutdown order has passed, Long Island will be unable to begin reopening until it checks off those final three requirements. The first phase of reopening will permit nonessential businesses in fields like retail, wholesale and manufacturing to begin limited operations. As one of the regions that has not met the requirements, the stay-at-home order has been extended on Long Island until at least May 28.

New York State has been divided into 10 regions to help better coordinate the reopening process. Only three regions, the Finger Lakes area, the Mohawk Valley region and the northernmost counties in the state, were cleared to enter the first phase of the process on May 15. Each region has been given what the state calls a Regional Control Room, a multi-member advisory board to steer it through the reopening process. Both Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone were named to Long Island’s control room. The board is being headed by Empire State Development CEO Eric Gertler, and also includes Long Island Association President Kevin Law, Long Island Federation of Labor President John Durso and NAACP regional director Tracey Edwards.

Curran has been reluctant to offer a concrete timeline on when Long Island will be ready to enter phase one but has remarked that the region might be ready earlier than her initial estimate of the end of June. Law has said Long Island may not be ready for weeks.

Members of Nassau County’s Coronavirus Economic Advisory Council have petitioned Cuomo to allow for certain businesses, like construction, curbside retail, private gardens and elective surgeries, to be reclassified as essential so they can begin operations before Long Island meets reopening requirements.

While the ongoing shutdown continues to impact local businesses and drive up unemployment numbers, Eisenstein and other health officials have consistently warned about the dangers of trying to reopen Long Island too early.

“Until you have zero cases, you have to make sure that the mechanisms are in place to prevent the spread of disease,” Eisenstein said. “We have seen in other places that have opened, when measures were not done carefully the disease is just re-energized.”

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