A client checks in with Jessica Dennehy at Mad Men Barbershop...

A client checks in with Jessica Dennehy at Mad Men Barbershop on Wednesday in Wantagh.   Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

With COVID-19 infections down significantly, state and local health officials say they are now meeting their goals in establishing a complex system of contact tracing on Long Island.

Under a plan announced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in late April, the new contact tracing system against COVID-19 would require a statewide corps of 6,400 to 17,000 contact tracers, depending on the number of projected cases. State and local officials say the sharp recent decline in infections has allowed them to meet that metric goal.

“We already have more than 6,100 tracers on the streets and another 4,000 that have completed the training,” said state Department of Health spokesperson Erin Silk in an email response about New York’s overall effort. “These tracers are deployed on an as-needed basis.”

On Long Island, the need for contact tracers is not as great as once feared because the number of people testing positive for the virus has plummeted, largely thanks to the state's stay-at-home order, mask-wearing and other social distancing measures, health experts say. At the virus’ peak so far on April 7, Long Island reported 3,265 new confirmed positive cases, which dropped to 73 cases by June 9, according to state records.

"As the numbers [of infection] go down, we anticipate that the tracing will hopefully go down," said Mary Ellen Laurain, a spokesperson for the Nassau County Department of Health, about the county's program. She said the county's new positive cases averaged about 35 to 40 daily cases early this week, much lower than in May when daily caseloads hovered around 200 to 250. Nassau's infection rate is now under 1% Laurain said, based on the number of people testing positive compared to the overall number tested.

Like Nassau, Suffolk had about 35 to 50 new positive cases daily during the past week — much lower than in May when daily peaks often reached more than 250 new confirmed virus cases.

“As with most transitions, there is a learning curve as we continue to learn the new statewide system and streamline the workflow,” Suffolk health officials said in an email.

In Suffolk, officials say they now have 110 staff members conducting trace investigations. Another 70 are ready in case of a surge. Each day between 20 to 40 staff conduct trace interviews, they said. Between June 2 and 9, 420 case interviews were conducted, officials said.

Also, Suffolk has more than 1,200 county staff who have completed the contact tracing course — offered by Johns Hopkins University and philanthropies affiliated with billionaire Mike Bloomberg — “should we need to swiftly pull in more resources,” officials said. A spokesperson for the Bloomberg group declined to comment.

Contact tracing is a disease-fighting approach designed to contain the virus, experts say. Once an infected person is identified through a diagnostic test, local health workers attempt to alert those people who have come into contact recently with the infected person to prevent further spread.

State officials had previously estimated they would need about 30 tracers for every 100,000 people living in a region.

Through telephone calls and texts, health officials urged all those who have come into contact with an infected person to have a diagnostic test themselves and to quarantine themselves for about two weeks.

In Nassau, Laurain said, county health workers discreetly check on those quarantined to make sure they are living up to the health restrictions. Before Cuomo’s new system, she said county health officials gave priority in their contact tracing system to those infected people living in a group setting to avoid further contagion.

“People have been very good about it overall” in cooperating with the contact tracing system, Laurain said, “especially if the person is sick and you’re interviewing them and they’re coughing.”

If there is an uptick in infections, Laurain said Nassau has prepared workers in other departments to help the current tracers if needed with this effort. “I know countywide many employees were trained on the [Johns Hopkins] system,” Laurain said. “If we saw the need to increase it, if the numbers [of infected people] changed, we would have that [additional group trained employees] available.”

Though COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, she said Nassau has conducted contact tracing with other diseases such as tuberculous, hepatitis and HIV for many years. "This is not a new thing to public health," Laurain said.

With Matt Clark

CORRECTION: Anyone who comes in contact with an infected person should have a diagnostic test and self-quartantine themselves for about two weeks. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

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