As countries restart, WHO warns about lack of virus tracing
NEW YORK — A top world health official Monday warned that countries are essentially driving blind in reopening their economies without setting up strong contact tracing to beat back flare-ups of the coronavirus.
The warning came as France and Belgium emerged from lockdowns, the Netherlands sent children back to school, and many U.S. states pressed ahead with the lifting of business restrictions.
Authorities have cautioned that the scourge could come back with a vengeance without widespread testing and tracing of infected people’s contacts with others.
Fears of infection spikes in countries that have loosened up were borne out in recent days in Germany, where new clusters were linked to three slaughterhouses; Wuhan, the Chinese city where the crisis started; and South Korea, where a single nightclub customer was linked to 85 new cases.
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, said that robust contact tracing measures adopted by Germany and South Korea provide hope that those countries can detect and stop virus clusters before they get out of control.
But he said the same is not true of other nations exiting their lockdowns, declining to name specific countries.
“Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I’ve seen,” Ryan said. “And I’m really concerned that certain countries are setting themselves up for some seriously blind driving over the next few months.”
Worldwide, the virus has infected a confirmed 4.1 million people and killed more than 285,000, including over 150,000 in Europe and just over 80,000 in the U.S., according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts believe those numbers understate the true toll of the outbreak.
More than 10,000 people are involved in contact tracing in Germany, a country of 83 million, or about onequarter the size of the United States. Other nations are behind.
Britain abandoned an initial contact-tracing effort in March when the virus’s rapid spread made it impossible. Now it is recruiting 18,000 people to do the legwork.
France’s health minister has for weeks promised robust contact tracing and pledged the country would test 700,000 people per week. On Monday, with progress on those efforts unclear, the nation’s highest court ordered the government to take extreme care in protecting the right to privacy, casting doubt on how to proceed.
In the U.S., where health officials will be watching closely in the coming days for any resurgence of the virus two weeks after states began gradually reopening, contact tracing is a patchwork of approaches and readiness levels. States are scrambling to hire and train contact tracers, with experts saying the country will need to bring on hundreds of thousands of them.
Apple, Google and some states, as well as European countries, are working to develop contact-tracing apps that can show whether someone has crossed paths with an infected person. But experts say the technology can only supplement, not replace, the labor-intensive human work.
Massachusetts is training more than 1,000 contact tracers aided by software. In the hardest-hit corner of the U.S., New York, contact tracers began online training Monday, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said some upstate areas, including the Finger Lakes, can ease their restrictions after Friday.
The governor set a requirement of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents for areas to reopen. That translates to 6,000 workers statewide, performing what Cuomo called “a logistical nightmare, never been done before.”
Meantime, a new study indicates that New York City’s death toll from the coronavirus may be thousands of fatalities worse than the official tally.
Between mid-March and early May, about 24,000 more people died in the city than researchers would ordinarily expect at that time of year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis. That is about 5,300 more deaths than previously attributed to the virus during that period.
Those “excess deaths” could have been caused indirectly by the outbreak, in some cases by swamping the health care system and delaying lifesaving care for other health problems, the report said.
In South Korea, the government clamped down again, halting school reopenings planned for this week and reimposing restrictions on nightclubs and bars. It is trying to track down 5,500 patrons of a Seoul nightlife district through credit-card transactions, cellphone records and security footage.
People ride a subway train Monday in Paris. The French left their homes for the first time in two months without permission slips as the country cautiously lifted its lockdown.