Prince William County has ramped up COVID-19 testing in recent weeks, holding mass testing events across the county to prepare for phase 1 of reopening. Now, local officials say their contact tracing efforts can't keep up with the wave of new cases.
As of Friday, May 29, the Prince William Health District, which encompasses a population of more than 500,000, had only 17 contact tracers hired to investigate hundreds of new cases, according to health district Director Dr. Alison Ansher.
Contact tracing is a key component in the state’s strategy for stopping the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracers interview people who have tested positive for the virus and attempt to notify people with whom they have had close contact during the time they were infectious. The goal is to ensure exposed individuals are tested for COVID-19 and self-quarantine if necessary to stop the further spread of the virus.
Prince William County Executive Chris Martino said in a recent memo to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors that the local health district has advised the county that the “large-scale testing events are overwhelming the capacity of the health district to conduct the necessary contact tracing.”
The memo was included in the board’s agenda for its Tuesday, June 2, meeting where supervisors are expected to continue discussing the $41 million the county expects to receive in federal CARES Act funding, some of which could be used for more community testing.
The local health district, which includes the county, Manassas and Manassas Park, is planning to add 145 contact tracers in the coming months as a part of a hiring spree initiated by the Virginia Department of Health earlier this month. The goal is to send 1,300 more contact tracers to local health districts throughout the commonwealth.
Ansher said four new contact tracers started work on Friday, May 29, and a dozen more are set to begin work next week. Ansher said she is unsure how many would be hired for the following week, but that hiring is ongoing.
The slow start to hiring has been accompanied by a spike in new COVID-19 cases in the area. In the last week, the Prince William Health District reported over 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 among area residents.
The jump in cases is partly the result of mass testing efforts undertaken by the county in preparation for the region’s phase 1 reopening, which went into effect Friday, May 29, and eases restrictions on “non-essential” businesses, such as retail, hair salons and restaurants, while keeping gyms and entertainment venues mostly closed.
At three recent mass testing events in Manassas and Woodbridge, more than 3,000 free tests were given to county residents. Testing sites drew long lines of people who wanted to receive tests. During the first such events, testing supplies ran out within hours, according to county officials.
Increased testing is a key metric that, in combination with contact tracing, provides a clearer picture of the extent of the spread of the virus.
ZIP code data reveals local hotspots
In Prince William, testing took off after data released by the Virginia Department of Health showed that several Prince William and Manassas ZIP codes had the highest raw numbers of COVID-19 cases in state. Since then, the number of tests administered and the number of positive cases in those areas have continued to rise.
As of Sunday, May 31, three Prince William area ZIP codes – 22193, 22191 and 22110 – had the highest COVID-19 case counts in the state. Another two ZIP codes – 22109 and 22111 – were in the top 10. Those ZIP codes are located in the Woodbridge, Dale City and Manassas areas, and account for about 5,200 of the health district’s 6,900 total positive cases.
In a memo sent to Gov. Ralph Northam last week, Northern Virginia health district directors said the region had met four of six of the criteria in Northam’s “Forward Virginia” plan for reopening. The region had not met the requirements for increasing contact tracing, or increased supplies of personal protective equipment, the directors said.
Directors wrote that localities preparing for phases 2 and 3 of reopening would need to provide a non-hospital setting for people needing to self-isolate or quarantine while recovering from COVID-19. Such places are especially needed for people who live in crowded conditions where isolating is difficult or impossible.
As of last Friday, Prince William County had no such facilities available for people living in overcrowded conditions who have been exposed or tested positive, according to county spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson.
The health directors also said personal protective gear continues to be a challenge. They said hospitals have an adequate amount of PPE, but PPE for outpatient facilities, like private practices, long-term care facilities and first responders, is still needed.
“Although there is increased supply for these entities, there is not a sustainable supply through non-government sources,” the memo said.
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