As the Virgin Islands’ COVID-19 count rises, with 10 dead from the virus and 73 new cases since Tuesday amid an outbreak at the Queen Louise Home for the Aged on St. Thomas that infected 12, the Health Department has been deploying contact tracers in an effort to stop the spread.
The department initially entertained a $1 million contract in June for the electronic tracking of the virus by local tech startup Avera, but that turned controversial when the company’s inexperience and ties to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s daughter were revealed. Health now has 12 full-time contact tracers who are doing the work in a more traditional fashion, according to Dr. Esther Ellis, territorial epidemiologist.
Rather than high-tech apps, the tracers use their phones and questionnaires to track down those who may have been exposed to the highly contagious virus, said Ellis. The tracers have a Bachelor of Science degree, at minimum, she said, and their work is funded by the CARES Act as well as the CDC Foundation, an independent nonprofit created by Congress to mobilize philanthropic and private-sector resources to support the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We call every positive and have a questionnaire that takes about 30 minutes to one hour to complete,” said Dr. Ellis, via email. “It gets details as to where and when the positive was while potentially infectious. We use that data to then inform businesses to potential exposure as needed and to notify contacts of their potential exposure.”
That can be a mammoth task when many in the territory hold more than one job, including those that work in health care at facilities like the Queen Louise Home for the Aged, Dr. Ellis acknowledged.
“The more places a person was while infectious, the more work contact tracing is. That is why it’s so important now with our Stay at Home order that we all do our part to only go to work or be home, and while out of the house to always wear a facial covering or mask,” said Ellis.
Bryan instituted the Stay at Home order on Aug. 17 in response to an alarming rise in cases – 869 as of Thursday – since moving to an Open Doors phase on June 1, which allowed leisure travel and restaurants, hotels, Airbnb accommodations and other businesses to fully reopen. The order is effective for at least the next two weeks, according to Government House, while the ban on leisure travel is for 30 days from Aug. 19.
While some restrictions on beach hours and bars were put in place last month when an outbreak traced to the man camp at Limetree Bay Terminals on St. Croix infected dozens of workers, the recent surge in cases is largely attributed to the St. Thomas-St. John District, and their “ground zero” is proving more elusive, Bryan said recently.
According to Health Department statistics posted at covid19usvi.com, close contact and community spread, not travel, are largely to blame for the resurgence.
In a bid to curtail the potential spread of the virus by travelers, the government requires air arrivals to the territory to complete questionnaires, with the National Guard gathering the paperwork that includes names, phone numbers and any history of COVID-related symptoms or contact.
“The Department of Tourism is keeping track of this data. If anyone answers yes to a question that would flag them as a suspect case, then epidemiology is alerted [such as if someone marks yes to recently being in contact with a COVID case, or marks that they have any symptoms],” said Dr. Ellis.
With strategies for preventing or curtailing the virus largely reliant on the honor system – people telling the truth about their health status or contacts and adhering to safety guidelines – the governor announced a crackdown on Aug. 11. Those violating the masking order face a $50 fine for the first offense and $100 thereafter. Boaters found “rafting up” or failing to keep a distance of 12 feet face $10,000 fines and confiscation of their vessel, and restaurants violating the government’s operating orders will be closed down for 30 days and face an administrative fine by the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
“We cannot continue to have a policy where all the innocent suffer for the few guilty. We will be enforcing these mandates beginning today, and we will be unforgiving,” Bryan said. “No exceptions. We will fine you, confiscate your boat and close your business if we must. This pandemic is not going away any time soon, and we must adapt to life around it.”