NYC COVID-19 Contact Tracers Not Asking About George Floyd Protest Participation, Despite Fears of New Virus Wave

(This story was originally published on June 14th, 2020, by THE CITY.)

Over the two last weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio and others have voiced concerns that packed police brutality protests across the city could trigger a new wave of COVID-19 infections.

Whether or not that’s the case, however, remains unknown — and de Blasio’s team won’t be directly trying to find out.

The hundreds of contact tracing workers hired by the city under de Blasio’s new “test and trace” campaign have been instructed not to ask anyone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 whether they recently attended a demonstration, City Hall confirmed to THE CITY.

“No person will be asked proactively if they attended a protest,” Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for de Blasio, wrote in an emailed response to questions by THE CITY.

Instead, test-and-trace workers ask COVID-positive individuals general questions to help them “recall ‘contacts’ and individuals they may have exposed,” Cohen said. Among the initial questions: “Do you live with anyone in your home?”

Tracers then ask about “close contacts” — defined as being within six feet of another person for at least 10 minutes.

It’s up to tested individuals to volunteer whether any of those close contacts occurred during protests. “If a person wants to proactively offer that information, there is an opportunity for them to do so,” Cohen wrote.

The mayor announced his “test and trace” program on May 8, promising that the city would hire 1,000 “contact tracers.” City Hall has declined to spell out how many individuals have been questioned so far, but de Blasio promised to release that information Monday.

Since the effort began, officials say most — but not all — people questioned by contact tracers have been cooperative. Some, however, have refused to volunteer any information about their close contacts.

“Naturally, we have not been able to obtain all information from all positive cases, but engagement among those reached is high,” Cohen wrote.

Mayor and Gov Want to Know

There’s no direct effort to resolve a question both de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have asked repeatedly since the demonstrations against police brutality erupted following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police: Are the protests helping spread the virus?

“That’s the one variable in this equation that we’re not sure of: We don’t know what the effect of those protests are,” Cuomo said last week.

Thousands of protesters filled the streets around Barclays Center during continued protests over the death of George Floyd, June 2, 2020.
Thousands of protesters filled the streets around Barclays Center during protests over the death of George Floyd, June 2, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The three-day average percentage of New Yorkers whose COVID-19 test turned out positive has dropped dramatically, from 69% on March 31 to an all-time low of 2% as of June 8.

This has occurred, in part, because initially only people diagnosed as very sick were tested. More recently, a much larger pool of individuals has been tested — including those with no symptoms — driving down the percentage of positives.

But there’s a growing concern the numbers could spike again, given Phase One of the city’s reopening and the protests.

So far, there have been no apparent signs of a dramatic swing. De Blasio on Thursday announced the three-day average percentage of positive tests had risen slightly from 2% to 3%.

Cuomo and de Blasio find themselves walking a tightrope, warning protesters to be aware that COVID-19 remains a very real threat to life and strongly advising all who attend demonstrations to get tested. But they are also steering clear of dissuading anyone from participating in demonstrations.

A Different Experience

A key source of tests for the virus now is the medical chain CityMD with 100 clinics in the city, New Jersey and Long Island. A New Yorker who called up CityMD last week to get an appointment for a test after witnessing a daunting line at one of the clinics told THE CITY that the CityMD staff asked the individual whether they’d attended a protest.

CityMD officials did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In Nassau County, health officials take a slightly different approach. While they do not ask individuals who test positive whether they’ve attended protests, they do ask them where they’ve been recently.

“We ask them questions about where they’ve been so that we can gauge who may be at risk,” said Mary Ellen Laurain, a spokesperson for the Nassau County Health Department. “It may come out as part of the interview, but we ask more open-ended questions.”

Despite Cuomo’s concerns about the effect of the protests, the state Health Department has remained neutral on the issue.

Jonah Bruno, an agency spokesperson, stated, “We’re working with New York City to balance the public health priority while also protecting personal privacy, as we seek to ensure a thorough contact tracing program that helps us contain the COVID-19 virus and monitor any fluctuations in the infection rate as we continue reopening New York.”

‘Treat People with Ease’

Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, a professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said contact trackers face a balancing act: trying to obtain useful information about an infected person’s contacts without alienating them with overly intrusive questions.

Asking someone if they’d been at a protest could wind up discouraging them from being candid in their answers, he noted.

“I think the logic has to do with the fact that contact tracing requires a strong level of trust between the interviewer and the person they’re talking to,” he said. “It’s really important to have a good rapport and treat people with ease. It’s important to not ask questions that will impede your ability to do the best job you can.”

For example, Kachur, who has been involved in contact tracking during previous pandemics involving the flu and Zika, noted that when investigators are trying to track the spread of HIV, tuberculosis or most diseases, they make a point of not asking about a person’s immigration status.

And while knowledge of how the protests might be sparking a second wave would be helpful, it would be very difficult to track close contacts at events attended by thousands of strangers, he said.

“There’s definitely a concern that state and city officials have that the protests could be a place where transmission occurs, but that risk is lower than household and other community contacts,” Kachur said. “And it would be really challenging to trace those contacts who you’ve been protesting with.”

Going forward, a key question will be whether Blasio’s test-and-trace program can handle the workload as increased testing yields more positive cases and more contacts to trace.

“How well are they able to keep up with the complete investigations that they are able to trace?” Kachur asked. “If they have more cases than they can deal with, that would be concerning. It would be a confusing month or two here.”

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