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Contact tracing headed out; vaccinations and testing in, Gov. Hochul says

Contact tracing will become optional for local health

Contact tracing will become optional for local health departments. Gov. Hochul said. She also introduced the "Vax for Kids" campaign during a COVID-19 news briefing in Manhattan on Tuesday.  Credit: NY Governor's Office

New York State is ending contact tracing for COVID-19, saying it's nearly impossible to keep up with the number of cases amid the omicron surge, and instead will focus on vaccinations and testing, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday.

The governor also said slowing COVID-19 indicators are a "glimmer of hope" that the state may be reaching a plateau in the number of omicron variant cases after a record-breaking surge.

Hochul and Dr. Mary Bassett, the acting state health commissioner, said full details of the phasing out of contact tracing will be released Wednesday.

"We have 12,000 new cases a day. It is almost impossible to do contact tracing the way we have been in the past," Hochul said at a news briefing in Manhattan.

Contact tracing will become optional for local health departments, they said. Hochul said local health departments had asked her to make the change.

The massive numbers of new daily cases are taking up too much of the resources of the local health departments, Hochul and Bassett said.

Nassau County officials said Tuesday they would generally stop contact tracing, while Suffolk was still studying the issue.

"With the increase in transmission of COVID-19 in Nassau County making contact tracing less effective, and the idea that COVID is becoming an endemic virus we will learn to live with, the health department will no longer routinely conduct contact tracing, with some exceptions," Nassau County Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein said.

Daily Positivity Rate

Nassau: 22.0%

Suffolk: 23.2%

Statewide: 18.61%

7-day Positivity Rate

Nassau: 24.4%

Suffolk: 25.9%

Statewide: 20.91%

Source: New York State Department of Health

Bassett noted that the number of COVID-19 cases in the state has gone up fourfold since early December. She said that going forward, if people test positive for the virus, they should no longer expect a phone call from their local health department seeking to do contact tracing.

People who test positive should still follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidance on isolating and quarantining.

CDC guidelines say people exposed to COVID-19 who are up to date on vaccinations do not need to quarantine, but should get tested at least five days after having close contact with an infected person, watch for symptoms and wear a mask for 10 days.

People who are exposed but are not up to date on vaccines should quarantine for five days, get tested at least five days after close contact, watch for symptoms and wear a mask for 10 days.

People who have tested positive for COVID-19, regardless of their vaccination status, should stay home for five days and isolate from other people in their home as much as possible. If he or she is fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication, a person can end isolation after five days and should wear a mask until day 10.

Bassett said contact tracing is especially challenging with the omicron variant.

"The result is a very large number of people who tested positive [and] a very short window for intervention to disrupt transmission, which is the purpose of contact tracing," Bassett said.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said contact tracing can be an effective tool to contain infectious disease in the right circumstances.

"Contact tracing is most helpful when you're trying to contain a virus by asking people to, in essence, self quarantine, even though they don't have symptoms but they were exposed to this person," he said.

"With community spread like this, a lot of people don't know really where they got it to begin with. It’s possible that people are getting it when they go to the grocery store or when they just go and get gas or when they're visiting their friends."

A new state website, set to launch Wednesday, will include links to forms people can use to show employers they have been following isolation and quarantine protocols, Bassett said.

New cases continue to drop

The governor said the COVID-19 trends are giving her hope New York is reaching a plateau in the surge. The statewide number of new cases on Monday was 48,686, far below the record of 85,476 set on New Year’s Eve, she said.

The state positivity level in testing also is falling, with the daily level hitting 18.6% on Monday, she said. Long Island's seven-day average fell for the fifth straight day, to 25.14%.

It "looks like we might be cresting over that peak," Hochul said. "We are not at the end, but I want to say that this is to me a glimmer of hope … at a time when we desperately need that."

Despite all that, 160 people died on Monday of causes linked to the virus, the highest figure in nearly a year. The fatalities included 13 each in Nassau and Suffolk.

And the number of people hospitalized with the virus jumped by 518, to 12,540.

But the number of new daily cases on Long Island was less than half of recent highs, with 3,407 in Nassau and 3,129 in Suffolk, though fewer overall tests were done on Monday than on record-setting days.

Uniondale schools going remote

Three Uniondale district schools are moving to remote instruction through the end of this week because of staff and student absences due to virus.

Remote instruction started Tuesday, according to a letter from Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil posted on the district's website. Staff at Uniondale High, Turtle Hook Middle and The Lawrence Road Middle, which is in Hempstead, "will report to their buildings daily and students will receive remote instruction at home," the letter stated.

Staffing shortages due to COVID-19 has caused the 17 campuses in the Brentwood district to operate remotely since last week. They include the high school, the Brentwood Freshman Center and four middle schools since Jan. 4, and 11 elementary schools since Jan. 5, officials said. All schools will return to in-person instruction on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, about 600,000 of the 5.2 million at-home test kits given to schools in New York, including some on Long Island, have expiration dates of Jan. 31, but state officials do not think it will be a problem because the kits are meant to be used soon.

Bassett said the CareStart tests are meant to be used quickly to help keep students in schools amid the surge, and mostly likely will be used up before the Jan. 31 date.

Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health Labs, said he and other lab professionals cannot advise people to use COVID-19 test kits after the expiration date. But Breining also said people should not be quick to toss the expired kits because federal and state authorities might have specific recommendations.

"There may be guidance on this in the near future if a significant number of kits are affected," he said. "The chemicals used in most of these processes do not just suddenly become inactive on a certain exact date. And often, if proper validation has been done to confirm the test’s effectiveness, the expiration date can be extended."

A state COVID-19 testing site opened at Stony Brook University on Tuesday in conjunction with Quadrant Biosciences. It will function from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and administer PCR tests. Officials said the site can accommodate about 225 appointments and up to 50 walk-ins daily.

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What to know

New York State is ending contact tracing for COVID-19 because the number of cases amid the omicron surge makes it too difficult.

The state instead will focus on vaccinations and testing, Gov. Kathy Hochul said.

Slowing COVID-19 indicators are a “glimmer of hope” that the state may be reaching a plateau in the number of omicron variant cases, Hochul said.