As coun­tries restart, WHO warns about lack of virus trac­ing

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Jim Mus­tian, Christina A. Cas­sidy and Lori Hinnant

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.

MICHEL EULER/AP

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.

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