County board questions contact tracing methods
Hubbard County remains at five COVID-19 cases, as of Friday, with no hospitalizations required. No cases have occurred in a long-term care setting.
CHI St. Joseph’s Community Health Director Marlee Morrison answered these questions and others from county commissioners about the pandemic on Tuesday.
The total number of COVID-19 tests collected in Park Rapids, as of June 17, is 749, she reported. These tests were conducted at Sanford Health, Essentia Health and CHI St. Joseph’s Health.
Morrison noted that the number of positive cases in surrounding counties – Becker County has 50 and Beltrami County has 23 – increased within the past week. Meanwhile, Cass and Wadena counties have remained steady at 12 and 10, respectively.
Morrison said she and another public health nurse are working with the Minnesota Department of Health on contact tracing.
If the caseload were to become overwhelming, Morrison said contact tracing would transition from a local to a regional model. “Right now, that is not in place and we are able to manage the cases that we have,” she said.
Morrison added, “Because there’s no vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 for people who become very ill, the contact tracing is a way in communities to keep it managed. We want to keep our communities open so we can quickly identify cases and then try to stop the spread from going further in the community and causing disruption in that manner, whether it’s in an assisted living or congregate care setting or an outbreak occurs in a business. The whole point would be to keep things manageable.”
Christenson said she struggles with contact tracing because of its infringement on rights.
Morrison said some people have refused to be tested for COVID-19 after learning they may have come in contact with the virus. “All we can do is give them the information,” she said. “We’re not trying to limit anyone’s freedom. It is truly to manage a disease that we have no vaccine for.”
Christenson asked if a parent or child are supposed to isolate themselves from their families if they become infected with COVID-19.
Morrison said that can be difficult to do in a single household. It is not mandatory, nor is it enforced, she noted.
Christenson inquired if a person could be asked to quarantine multiple times.
Morrison replied that it is possible if that person came within less than six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or longer on separate occasions.
“I know this is a very real disease and it’s serious, 90 percent of the people have this recovered or don’t even realize they have the symptoms. I want the public to be aware this has the potential to keep you unemployed,” said Christenson, adding that really troubles her.
The ultimate goal of public health is to keep communities open and safe, Morrison reiterated, and that’s why businesses are being asked to develop COVID-19 plans. “Without living in fear, you can still take common-sense steps to protect your own business and protect your family,” she said.
County commissioner David De La Hunt called Gov. Tim Walz’s actions “heavy handed,” with more emphasis on life rather than livelihood.
De La Hunt said the summer season is gone, with most revenue-generating events cancelled and businesses struggling to survive. “Contact tracing is just going to extend it out and make it worse and worse and worse,” he concluded.
Public health is obligated by statute to complete contact tracing for any communicable disease, Morrison noted. The purpose is not to punish or shut down, she said, adding that her impression is that it has not been invasive.
County commissioner Tom Krueger asked if a COVID-19 vaccine might become mandatory.
“Vaccines aren’t mandatory now,” Morrison said, but they are recommended.
De La Hunt asked if a long-term care facility in Minnesota is mandated to admit COVID-19 patients.
No, Morrison reported, after doing some research. “Each facility makes that decision. In our area, some plan to do so and some do not, based on their ability to isolate and cohort residents. Any resident returning from the hospital or new admission is treated as if positive and is placed in isolation for 14 days.”
Christenson asked if positive cases were entered into a national database. Morrison said she only knew of the state database, and she is only able to view Hubbard County.
Christenson also called attention to a bill (H.R. 6666), claiming children could be taken away from an infected single parent. The bill language also requires someone to deliver food or medicine to someone in isolation or someone will be assigned, according to Christenson.
Vaccines “are not a cure-all,” she added, “because if it was we wouldn’t still have the flu.”
Concerned about individuals’ rights, Christenson continued, “Our phones are already downloaded with necessary tracking devices at a national level to track every single one of us about COVID, to the point if they so desired to implement this, we could not be allowed out of our house if we tested positive.”
Morrison later looked into H.R. 6666, called the Test Reach And Contact Everyone (TRACE) Act. The bill is available for viewing at www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6666/text .
“The TRACE Act includes a $100 billion grant that will be used to allocate money to nonprofit organizations, health centers, medical facilities and more to implement testing units and hire staff in hotspot areas to track and reduce COVID-19 cases,” Morrison reported. “This bill does not allow for or mandate contact tracing to be completed by cell phone data; does not enforce isolation and quarantine in people’s homes and does not include the removal of children from their COVID positive parents. The bill speaks specifically to privacy, including ‘nothing in this section shall be construed to supersede any federal privacy of confidentiality requirement.’”
All health care provided is subject to HIPAA and the Public Health Service Act, she added.