Contact Tracing Revs up in Some States as Omicron Reaches U.S.

In this Aug. 6. 2020, file photo, Joseph Ortiz, a contact tracer with New York City’s Health + Hospitals battling the coronavirus pandemic, disinfects his tablet after leaving a potential patient’s home in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo. File)

The arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the U.S. has health officials in some communities reviving contact tracing operations in an attempt to slow and better understand its spread as scientists study how contagious it is and whether it can thwart vaccines.

In New York City, officials quickly reached out to a man who tested positive for the variant and had attended an anime conference at a Manhattan convention center last month along with more than 50,000 people. Five other attendees have also been infected with the coronavirus, though officials don’t yet know whether it was with the omicron variant.

“As for what we learned about this conference at the Javits Center and these additional cases, our test and trace team is out there immediately working with each individual who was affected to figure out who else they came in contact with. That contact tracing is absolutely crucial,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Once a global epicenter of the pandemic, New York has the country’s biggest contact tracing effort. The city identified four omicron cases Thursday, and a fifth was discovered in nearby Suffolk County on eastern Long Island.
The variant has been detected in a handful of other states so far, including California, Colorado and Hawaii.

Contact tracers have been busy in Nebraska after six cases of omicron were confirmed Friday. One of the people had recently returned from a visit to Nigeria, and the other five were close contacts of that person.

In Philadelphia, officials were working to track down contacts of a man in his 30s who is Pennsylvania’s first resident infected with the variant, the city’s Department of Public Health said.

And in Maryland, officials were rushing to trace, quarantine and test close contacts of three people from the Baltimore area who are the first known cases in the state. Two are from the same household, including a vaccinated person who recently traveled to South Africa, and the third has no recent travel history and is unrelated to the other two.

Contact tracing is a vital tool in the pandemic response, allowing health departments to notify people who had close contact with an infected person and slow the progression of COVID-19.

While much is still unknown about the variant, early reports are raising alarms. New COVID-19 cases in South Africa, which first alerted the world to omicron last week, have burgeoned from about 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday.

Some of the U.S. cases involve people who hadn’t traveled recently, meaning the variant was likely already circulating domestically in some parts of the country.

In New York, the three-day festival in November is presenting a staffing challenge for tracers due to the large number of attendees. The one known omicron infection involved a man from Minnesota.

Officials cautioned against linking the other five coronavirus cases directly to the event.

“The really important point here is that’s five cases from a denominator of tens of thousands of people at this conference. And furthermore, we’ve not established any sort of link between those five cases and widespread transmission at the conference,” said Ted Long, executive director of the NYC Test & Trace Corps, which runs the city’s contact tracing program.

Proof of vaccination was necessary for admission, as mandated by city law, and masks were also required.

Officials said they had reached all 36,500 convention attendees, vendors and exhibitors for whom they had contact information, via email, text message or phone call. But they decided it wasn’t necessary to contact every single attendee since the infected man did not appear to have close contacts based in New York.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, officials are investigating “a circle of contacts” for the man believed to have been infected at the conference, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

“Part of the reason we did indicate where he had been — the anime convention in New York — is because there were so many people that attended that event. It would not be possible for him or really anyone to identify everyone that they were potentially in contact with,” Ehresmann said.