New hurdles for contact tracers: Slow testing and cases in young people

Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle kicked off a town Zoom meeting describing the sudden spike in cases of COVID-19 — 43 new positives in just the past couple weeks, pushing Westfield’s total to 325 cases.

She said in a statement, “ … with the majority of those under age 25. Some are attributed to July 4th parties, while others stem from group house rentals as well as recent travel to out of state hot spots.”

Officials are frustrated.

“We’re seeing like 18 to 24, that age group has been a large increase locally where I sit in Union County, but also statewide as well,” said Westfield health officer Megan Avallone. “I think it’s just young adults are social individuals and I think they have a lot of contacts, so it’s not that you’re going to one party on Fourth of July. You go to one party Fourth of July and then maybe you’re going to a graduation.”

Younger people may feel invulnerable, but they can spread the virus rapidly. In April, New Jersey residents age 18 to 25 represented just 12% of cases. That jumped to 22% in June. And that demographic can make it tougher for contact tracers trying to stop the disease from spreading.

Westfield tracers “… have reported instances of non-cooperation by infected residents who won’t provide details about any relevant interactions or whereabouts,” according to the mayor.

“I can understand why they wouldn’t want to provide a list of their friends names and phone numbers, certainly understandable,” said Avallone. “We like to keep an open door, really let them know if they change their mind and provide contact names and numbers, that’s the most ideal.”

“If you’re talking about people who are in their early 20s, especially if they’re out socializing, even if they’re open air bars et cetera, it makes that contact tracing nearly impossible. You can’t do the individual contact tracing. What you can only do it put out an alert that if you were in this place, at this time you may have come in contact with somebody,” said epidemiologist and Montclair State University professor Stephanie Silvera.

It’s serious enough that the Murphy administration plans to spotlight younger residents in an upcoming ad blitz.

“Next week, we will launch a COVID-19 testing and contact tracing public awareness campaign, and the young adult population will be among our targeted audience,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli at Monday’s coronavirus press briefing.

And Persichilli noted contact tracers now face another hurdle. Because of the COVID rampage in Sun Belt states, the turnaround time for non-hospital COVID test results has increased dramatically from a couple days to as many as nine or 10.

“We can’t protect people from getting sick unless we know who’s been exposed,” said Avallone.

Camden County health officer Dr. Paschal Nwako reports a recent uptick in cases there, too. He fears increased community spread.

“You have people that are out there in the community that don’t know they have COVID-19 and they will be spreading it more,” said Nwako. “It’s frustrating for us, it’s frustrating for the people that went for the test, and it’s also not good for COVID-19 for us to reduce the number of positives in the population.”

But until testing labs can increase their capacity the turnaround lag will continue, and that will compromise New Jersey’s ability to stamp out local COVID clusters.