Citing a recent uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases in Burlington County and across New Jersey, Burlington County Health Director Herb Conaway and Freeholder Dan O’Connell are encouraging local residents to strictly adhere to social-distancing restrictions and to cooperate with all contact tracing efforts.
“This virus does not care about your age, where you live or what you do for a living. It just does everything it can to replicate itself, and it’s up to all of us to counteract that,” Conaway said. “It’s entirely in our hands, so it’s time to dig deep and make sure we all do what’s required to prevent this disease from spreading further.”
Cooperating with contact tracing is one of the more critical actions residents can do to assist health officials. Tracers will call people who either tested positive for COVID-19 or who recently spent time in close contact with someone who tested positive. They will seek information about others who may have been in close contact and can also help refer people to available COVID-19 testing resources and other assistance.
“Contact tracing is absolutely essential to preventing coronavirus from spreading, but it can’t work if our residents don’t accept the phone call or refuse to cooperate with tracing efforts,” said Freeholder O’Connell, who is the board’s liaison to the Health Department. “Help us to help you by communicating with the contact tracers.”
The two officials pointed to the New Jersey Department of Health’s contact tracing statistics, which revealed contact tracers were unable to investigate close to 33% of new positive COVID-19 cases across the state during the week of July 26-Aug. 1, including about 24% of Burlington County’s new cases.
Burlington County has nine full-time staffers working on contact tracing and 10 volunteers and Rutgers University students. An additional 10 volunteers are in training and are expected to begin tracing cases soon, Dr. Conaway said.
The additional tracers are expected to help with Burlington County’s rising caseload of positive COVID-19 cases, which have risen in recent weeks from an average of 15 a day to about 27 new cases a day this week.
“Our Health Department seeks to trace the close contacts of nearly every positive case we learn about. But we’ve started to face some resistance, either from people not accepting calls or refusing to divulge their contacts,” Dr. Conaway said. “Some of the resistance is from young people who don’t want to disclose friends they may have been socializing with, but in some cases it’s also older adults who don’t want to be bothered or allow their teenage children to be interviewed. It’s becoming more and more of a problem because these are people who need to be notified and told to get tested and quarantine.”
In order to guard against potential scammers, Conaway said residents should know that tracers will not ask for social security numbers or financial information. They will also not ask about immigration status and information you provide will remain confidential and will not be used for law enforcement.
Residents with any doubts about the legitimacy of a contact tracer phone call can hang up and contact the county Health Department. However, cooperation with legitimate tracers is critical to stopping the coronavirus from spreading.
“There’s so much we still don’t know about this virus, and even young and healthy people can be at risk from COVID-19. But even those that don’t have symptoms can become carriers and transmit the virus to a vulnerable friend, relative or neighbor,” Freeholder O’Connell said. “It’s why contact tracing is so critical. We need everyone to be aware and accept calls from tracers.”
In addition to cooperating with contact tracers, Conaway said he supports Congressman Andy Kim’s call for a nationwide standard for all COVID-19 diagnostic test results to be returned within 72 hours.
Kim made the case for the three-day benchmark in a letter to Assistant Secretary for Health, Admiral Brett Giroir.
“We’ve seen how delays in the return of test results can cause the virus to unknowingly be spread,” Dr. Conaway said.
The Burlington County leaders also urged residents to wear masks when in public and to strictly adhere to social-distancing rules and get tested, particularly if they attended a large gathering or traveled to a location on New Jersey’s quarantine list.
Large indoor parties or gatherings have been found to be at the root of several of the new cases of COVID-19 infection being reported.
“These parties have to end. They’re a recipe for not controlling this virus or getting our kids back into school or getting things back to normal,” Conaway said.