Investigating contacts, testing the vulnerable

Michael Smith
An Oklahoma National Guard member moves pallets of equipment destined for long-term care facilities on April 27. Guard members have also been assigned to regional and county health departments to help with contact tracing and transportation of samples to laboratories.

State health officials warn that COVID-19 cases remain in south-central Oklahoma even as businesses begin to reopen. As contacts of those with confirmed cases are tracked down, laboratories continue to struggle with demand after a statewide initiative to test thousands of residents and employees of long-term care facilities.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health on Saturday, 4,490 cases of the disease have been confirmed in Oklahoma with 65 of those in counties across the region. Carter County has recorded six cases that include one recovery and one death.

Mendy Spohn, OSDH Administrative Director for the department’s Region 8, said scores of contacts from nine active cases within the region have already been identified by contact tracers. The region covers Carter, Garvin, Jefferson, Johnston, Love, Marshall, Murray, Pontotoc and Stephens counties.

“We have approximately 60 contacts associated with these active cases. We make daily connections with each contact. The majority are associated with one case,” Spohn said in a Friday statement. Contact tracers include health department nurses and activated members of the Oklahoma National Guard.

Last month, Gov. Kevin Still announced a statewide plan to test residents and staff of over 300 long-term care facilities by the end of May. In the April 28 announcement, Stitt said the ability to use saliva samples rather than nasal swabs would be easier for these facilities with at-risk populations.

The surge in testing 42,000 long-term care facility residents and staff members on a deadline appears to have put a strain on laboratories. Spohn said regional testing has been paused after collecting samples at eight long-term care facilities to allow labs to catch up.

“Unfortunately, we are waiting over a week now for results for our (long-term care facilities) already tested,” Spohn said.

While the phased reopening put forward by Stitt still recommends vulnerable populations continue to self-isolate to prevent infection, many businesses have started to reopen. Spohn said case contacts are expected to increase as business and community activities resume operation.

“It is very important for our messages to be clear about staying away from groups or in the public if we are sick,” Spohn said.

“Essential workers should consider exposure risks during afterhour get-togethers. If everyone from a critical service unit attends the same party where social distancing is not maintained, that entire unit could be asked to quarantine if someone at the party were positive.”