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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

As Long Island nears reopening, slowing COVID-19 outbreaks becomes job one

People walk and ride bikes along the boardwalk

People walk and ride bikes along the boardwalk in Long Beach on March 24. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As Long Island hurtles toward opening things up — likely as soon as this week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday — there's one word worth keeping in mind.

Outbreak.

Nope, not the 1995 film about — wouldn't you know it — an airborne virus that threatens civilization.

But about the very real possibility that there will be more COVID-19 infections as the region begins to reopen, and as residents venture farther and farther away from home.

The notion of summer is embedded in human DNA, and the unofficial beginning of a slow-it-down, have-some-fun season could lull some Long Islanders into relaxing their guard, while relaxing under the sun.

Don't do it.

There is no specific treatment for serious cases of COVID-19, and no vaccine.

Which is why, under New York State's reopening guidelines, Nassau and Suffolk must have more than a thousand "contact tracers" on hand should word come down next week to begin reopening.

Queries to Nassau and Suffolk counties, along with calls to some members of the panel charged with ensuring that Long Island continues on its path toward meeting state guidelines, went unanswered as of Friday evening.

But both counties have been reaching out to local organizations to recruit tracers.

What will they do?

They will become the county health department's detective team, and their goal will be to keep outbreaks from spreading.

Prospective candidates must take a five-hour online course that lays everything out.

And one of the most surprising takeaways is just how small a window of opportunity exists to slow the spread of infection between the time a person tests positive — or is assumed to have — and the time people they've had contact with, could begin to pass the virus along, should they become infected.

That window is just two days.

Then there's the reproductive number: The number of people a sick person can infect.

That number — called the R-naught — is two to three people. That's significantly higher than for those with MERS, another viral respiratory disease, who can infect fewer than one other person, when numbers are averaged.

So, now, name one of the most frequent places where a single sick person can spread infection?

Hint: It's not work.

 Answer: It's the people the sick person lives with, which, in many cases, is their families.

One training slide says it all: "If we can limit contact between people who are infected and others. we can limit opportunities for the virus to be transmitted."

For us, one way is to keep six feet away from other people,

Remember: Most Long Islanders haven't been tested for COVID-19.

And some with active infections show no signs of sickness.

As for those who fall ill — as the training drives home — the virus can be spread two days before a person feels any symptoms.

Most of the training, of course, is devoted to the job of contact tracer, which includes calling people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and tracking down the people with whom they've had contact while infected.

Yes, it's detective work.

But as the lengthy course section on building rapport makes crystal clear, it's also about building trust with people — during a stressful time in their lives.

And being able to have frank conversations — which again, the training makes clear — includes listening and, when needed, connecting people to resources.

And also, when necessary, urging them to seek medical care.

Such is a much-simplified version of what, for the Long Island community, will become another essential job.

Who are the tracers? When will Long Island have enough?

And, since minority communities on Long Island have the largest percentage of COVID-19-related deaths and illnesses (compared with the percentage of black and Latino people in the region's population), do Nassau and Suffolk have resources enough to both test, while quickly addressing any further outbreaks? 

Those questions, as of Friday, had yet to be addressed by county officials.

But they should, especially when the time comes, finally, to begin reopening Long Island.

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