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Coronavirus update: Delaware embarks on expansive contact tracing program

A nurse with ChristianaCare gives a free test for the coronavirus to a driver in Delaware. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

A nurse with ChristianaCare gives a free test for the coronavirus to a driver in Delaware. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

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As of Tuesday, 6,741 Delawareans contracted COVID-19, and 237 people died of related causes. A total of 276 people are hospitalized.

Delaware is starting a statewide contact tracing program for the coronavirus in the next week, with 100 National Guard members joining public health workers initially while the state begins hiring 200 people for the work Gov. John Carney says is key to reopening the economy.

The contact tracing program will get underway as the state expands testing to up to 80,000 residents monthly, Carney’s office said. That’s an astronomical increase in a state that has only reported 32,291 test results in the two months since the first resident tested positive.

The tracing initiative is a partnership with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. NORC is also helping neighboring Maryland perform contact tracing, and both states will share information to help officials monitor the spread of the virus across borders.

Members of the Delaware Guard began training Monday. The state will be posting the jobs for tracers and support staff here and will create a unit “that reflects the diversity of our state,’’ Carney said in a news release.

Carney has slated June 1 as a tentative date to begin the limited first phase of reopening. He said for that to happen, it’s critical to “quickly identify positive COVID-19 cases and reach out to those residents who may have been exposed. This contact tracing program brings us one step closer to returning Delaware to a new normal.”

David Cotton, NORC’s project director, said the institution is bringing to bear our decades of experience with high volume, scientifically rigorous data collection and public health expertise to help Delaware “stem the tide of new infections.”

Under the initiative, the governor’s office said Delawareans who have tested positive for COVID-19 should expect a phone call from a case investigator seeking information that includes a list of their known contacts.

Tracers will reach out to each of those people to help them safely quarantine, to find alternate arrangements as necessary, and to help them get tested for COVID-19, if recommended.

Delawareans who need extra support to safely self-quarantine – such as grocery delivery or alternative housing – will be referred to a network of local community health workers, Carney’s office said.

State death toll is record-tying 12 for 24-hour period

Twelve more deaths attributed to COVID-19 were reported Tuesday by Delaware public health officials — tying two other dates in April for the most fatalities in a 24-hour period.

Even with the 12 deaths, the number of critically ill people rose from 58 to 63 during the one-day period.

The people whose deaths were reported Tuesday ranged in age from 66 to 89,  and all had underlying health conditions. Seven were residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, the home for nearly two-thirds of the 237 people who have died of COVID-19-related illnesses.

While the death tally reported Tuesday equaled the state’s highest since the first reported case two months ago, testing continues to ramp up amid promising signs such as the rate of positive tests continuing to decline.

For example, 12.9% of the 1,363 people whose test results were reported Tuesday were positive for the virus. That figure was 42% on April 24 and 28% on May 2.

Fourth inmate death in state’s largest men’s prison

A fourth inmate with COVID-19 has died at Delaware’s largest prison, as the state’s correctional system continues to be hit more than four times harder than the general population.

The latest incarcerated person to die was Jim Hunter. Jr., 81,  who had “serious underlying health conditions,” and died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and the coronavirus, corrections spokesman Jason Miller said.

Hunter, who since 2015 had been serving a 10-year sentence for child sexual abuse, had been held at James. T. Vaughn  Correctional Center near Smyrna.

He lived in a minimum housing unit that has been closely monitored since April 8, with twice daily temperature checks and proactive COVID-19 testing of asymptomatic inmates. Hunter had tested negative on April 23 but when he was admitted to the hospital on April 23, he tested positive.

Hunter is the latest casualty in a system where 3.1% of the 4,423 people behind bars have tested positive — more than four times higher than the overall state infection rate of 0.7%, according to a WHYY analysis of prison and state public health records. The high prison infection rate has occurred as the number of people held behind bars has dropped during the crisis.

The prison toll pales in comparison, however, to the impact on residents in Delaware’s nursing homes— which through Friday had accounted for 7% of the positive cases and nearly two-thirds of the deaths that public health officials have attributed to COVID-19.

To date, 136 men held in Delaware’s correctional system have tested positive.

The vast majority of cases — 116 — have been at the Vaughn prison, which is where all four who died were held. There have been four cases at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington, and 16 at the Sussex Community Corrections Center in Georgetown.

A total of 55 inmates have recovered, including all 16 at the Sussex facility, corrections spokesman Jason Miller said.

Of the remaining 75 with the illness:

  • Vaughn has 56 who have no symptoms and 15 with symptoms.
  • Young has four without symptoms.

Commissioner Claire Dematteis said in a statement that those without symptoms “are continuing to be closely monitored in isolation at our COVID-19 treatment center.” Dematteis said she’s encouraged that “over the past six days the number of inmates recovering is significantly outpacing the number of new cases. DOC continues to aggressively test, isolate, treat and trace to prevent widespread contamination of this virus.”

A total of 83 staff and contractors in the correctional system have tested positive for the coronavirus. None have died and 12 have recovered.

To quell the spread of the virus, officials have implemented a variety of containment measures, including:

  • Temperature checks and screening for anyone who enters a facility.
  • Sending staffers who have symptoms home with instructions to self-quarantine and contact their healthcare provider.
  • Putting new prisoners in isolation for the first 14 days.
  • Having all staff and about half of those who are incarcerated wear face masks.

Miller said more information about the impact on correctional facilities and the state’s response  can be found at https://doc.delaware.gov.

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