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Dr. Joia Mukherjee, director of Partners in Health, talks about the tracing initiative being set up in partnership with the state Department of Health to track COVID-19 contacts and offer support to those in quarantine.

Testing, Contact Tracing Touted as Tool to Stop COVID-19 Spread

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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BOSTON — The state is collaborating with Partners in Health to create the COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative, the first of its kind in the nation. 
Gov. Charlie Baker stressed Friday that testing will be an "enormously powerful tool for public health officials" in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The new tracing collaborative is one of several assets being used to prepare for an expected surge in cases that could top 170,000 before the end of April. 
"We've been working this issue on a number of different fronts because slowing the spread of the virus requires us to use every tool that's available to us," Baker said at his daily update on Friday. "Yesterday you heard our detailed projections, as currently stand in respect to case numbers and our planning efforts to increase medical capacity for that surge."
As of Thursday, more than 56,000 tests had been done with 20 labs up and running. The goal of 3,500 tests a day is now being exceeded regularly with almost 5,000 done Thursday. 
Led by the administration's COVID-19 Response Command Center, Partners In Health will coordinate closely with the Department of Public Health and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Contact tracing will be combined with the state's efforts to increase testing and will provide support to people in quarantine in order to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"We're going to continue to expand opportunities for new testing capacity and new testing sites as labs keep up with our growth capacity,"  the governor said. "On Sunday, for example, there'll be a new drive-thru testing site for first responders in Foxborough in Gillette Stadium in the parking lot for the expect to test 200 responders a day."
Tracing means tracking down who an infected person may have had close contact with to caution them to quarantine. Tracing is already happening but Baker said this will be a "much more robust targeted approach that we hope can be highly effective at slowing the spread of this highly infectious disease."
"Our models suggest cases are likely to increase rapidly in the coming weeks, and the strain on our health-care system will be unprecedented," he said. "But we're also focused on the long game for how we can monitor isolate and put our communities in a position to mitigate cases over time and that's where this tracing -- by monitoring and isolating through an enhanced community tracing program -- our state can be positioned to reduce the number of cases, new cases in the long run."
The Department of Public Health currently works with the boards of health in tracing work conducted under the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, which will remain the epidemiological experts. The new community tracing program will have a call center of nearly 1,000 virtual contact tracers.
Partners in Health is a global health nonprofit based in Boston with a proven track record of creating successful public health interventions. Private-sector partners Accenture and Salesforce will be providing logistical and organizational resources and 170 students from nine academic health departments have been connected to 35 local health departments to assist with case tracing and public health messaging.
"What we're doing here today is the beginning of a breaking ground against COVID-19," Baker said. "Massachusetts will be the only state in the country putting together this kind of programming."
Dr. Joia Mukherjee, director of Partners in Health, said the nonprofit tackled epidemics ranging from Ebola in West Africa to HIV and tuberculosis. 
As PIH aids in preparing hospitals to treat patients whether or not they have COVID-19, the must be a  simultaneous effort to stop its ongoing spread of COVID-19, she said. "For over a century, epidemic control has relied on the tracing of contacts of infected people. Access to this information helps contacts to know how to protect their loved ones to get tested or cared for themselves."
She described the "base of the pyramid" as social isolation, but noted that can be difficult for families. Mukherjee said she'd want to know if she had had contact with an infected individual so she could take precautions around her elderly mother, who lives with her. 
"We need to make sure that everyone who is in contact with a person who has COVID-19 has the material resources, and the psychological resources to safely quarantine or isolate," she said. "That's why we're grateful for the leadership of [HHS] Secretary [Marylou] Sudders, and the focus on social support."
The second level of the pyramid is transmission. Efforts have been focused on the 20 percent of people who are sick but there are is 80 percent with mild symptoms or asymptomatic "that are silently and unknowingly spreading the disease," Mukherjee said. "We want to shine a light on that, a light with love and compassion that can reach out to people and humanely let them know that they are at risk."

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Trail Conservancy Cautions Pandemic Care When Hiking

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Although most of the Appalachian Trail is still open, hikers are asked to practice common sense during the pandemic while on the trail or to just stay home.
COVID-19 has challenged people to find new ways to stay active while practicing social distancing and local trail volunteer Cosmo Catalano, Jr said although folks are encouraged to stay home, common sense needs to be used to maintain social distancing. 
"The AT, along with other trails on public lands provides an important resource for people to get outdoors in a healthy way," he said. "With care and common sense, it's relatively easy for people to maintain appropriate social distance and enjoy the outdoors."
Catalano said the trail organization structure is complicated and is organized by a number of entities. In Massachusetts about half the trail is on state forest lands managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The other half is on lands managed by the National Park Service.
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