Contact tracing, nursing home tests next front in state COVID-19 reponse

Gov. Brian Kemp announced at a Tuesday press conference plans to bring in 750 public health employees to help trace the spread of COVID-19. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

The Georgia Department of Public Health plans to quadruple the people performing contact tracing in the state, from 250 to 1,000 by June 23, Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday.

The governor also announced at a Capitol press conference Tuesday he will extend restrictions on bars and nightclubs, will renew an effort to safeguard residents in senior care facilities and set guidelines to allow summer camps to open in coming months.

“We’ve also got to continue to get the troops on the battlefield, if you will, for contact tracing,” Kemp said “That is something that I’ve also charged Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey with. That’s what she’s been doing for almost 40 years now, and she knows what to do. She’s hiring the people to do it.”

Toomey, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, will now ramp up the process of helping a patient recall everyone he or she may have had contact with while contagious and warning those people before they potentially spread the disease further.

“We’re incrementally increasing our capacity every day, and virtually every case in a nursing home, every case in a high-risk situation has been contact-traced, so it isn’t as if this is new,” Toomey said. “What is new is the tracking of it with the app and the capacity to expand and improve our ability to have the data to actually identify how many contacts per case.”

The state is pushing Georgians to use  a new online monitoring tool called the Healthy Georgia Collaborative. Through it, COVID-19-positive patients are to be contacted by a staff member and asked to help identify anybody they were in close contact with – within six feet for 15 minutes or longer – beginning two days before they became ill.

Contact tracing can be a vital part of fighting COVID-19, but these are steps that should have happened before the state started allowing some businesses to reopen, said Georgia State University public health professor Harry J. Heiman.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, leads the contact tracing effort, which includes a new online tool. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

“We’re continuing to hear about how Dr. Toomey is building out capacity, but again, it’s pretty stunning that that’s still being deployed at the level of a couple hundred people when we started opening up our state weeks ago. … We’re building the infrastructure that, from a public health perspective, should be in place before we begin significantly opening up the state, and certainly before ending shelter in place,” he said.

Nursing homes will be a major priority for contact tracing and testing in Georgia, Kemp said. Nursing home, assisted living and personal care home residents and staff make up 18.5% of Georgia coronavirus cases, and 49% of total deaths involve residents of  nursing homes, assisted living facilities  and personal care homes.

“Yesterday, the White House issued a call to action, encouraging states to aggressively test nursing home residents and staff over the next two weeks,” Kemp said. “We’ve been doing that for a few weeks now through the Georgia National Guard. As of today, they have tested 46% of all nursing homes residents and 24% of staff at those facilities. We estimate 46,000 people who still need to be tested.”

That’s also something that should have been a priority long ago, Heiman said.

“I think it’s notable that they’ve tested 46% of residents, but it’s also notable that that means that 64% of nursing home residents, who he’s been identifying as high-risk all long, haven’t been tested. It’s striking to me that the governor was stressing the fact that anyone in Georgia can be tested now, it’s available to all Georgians, and yet, by their own data, a majority of residents in nursing homes and less than a quarter of staff have been tested.”

Testing at senior care facilities will be voluntary, said Georgia Department of Community Health Commissioner Frank Berry.

“It’s very difficult for us to force people to do that, so it’s highly encouraged,” he said. “We’ve had great conversations with the nursing home association. I think we will get a tremendous amount of cooperation with that.”

Kemp’s conference came two months after lawmakers abruptly suspended the 2020 legislative session due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Since then, more than 1,400 Georgians have died from the illness, and over 1.3 million have filed for unemployment.

A statewide shelter-in-place order expired at the end of April, but Georgians over the age of 65, as well as those who are medically fragile, must continue to shelter in place through June 12. Kemp’s April order shutting down restaurants and nightclubs was set to expire today before he announced Tuesday an extension through at least the end of the month.

Many businesses remain closed, despite the governor lifting some restrictions.

Kemp loosened some of those restrictions while extending others in an executive order Tuesday.

Restaurants can sit 10 diners per table, up from six before. Daycare facilities can double the number of children they can watch, 20 instead of 10, if they have proper staffing.

“I know this extension is difficult for many Georgia business owners and communities with music venues. However, we believe that waiting a little bit longer will enhance health outcomes and give folks the opportunity to prepare for safe reopening in the near future,” Kemp said.

Heiman said Kemp’s plan is not based on sound data.

“The governor said, quote, the data is always a couple weeks behind,” he said. “And he’s absolutely right, and yet, we continue to play pretend by sharing graphs where there is what appears to be a decline in the past 14 days. … I think it’s premature to relax any additional requirements.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.