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NY ends COVID contact tracing, saying it's not effective against omicron

 COVID-19 testing at UAlbany in 2020.
COVID-19 testing at UAlbany in 2020.

New York state will no longer do contact tracing when someone tests positive for COVID-19, Governor Kathy Hochul said this week. The change comes as the state launches a new website to provide guidance on when someone should take a test, and what to do if their result is positive.

Hochul says the omicron variant of the virus spreads very rapidly and has a shorter incubation period before symptoms appear. Because of that, she says, the contact tracing methods used earlier in the pandemic are no longer effective in disrupting transmission chains. The tracing had been largely carried out by county health departments.

“We are going to be allowing counties to decide if they want to contact trace. We'll leave that optional for them. It's not a requirement,” Hochul said. “It's just saying that they're not obligated to do it anymore."

Hochul says the overstrained local public health departments need to focus their energy and resources on convincing the remaining unvaccinated New Yorkers to get their shot, increasing the number of people who get booster shots, and coordinating testing sites and the distribution of at-home testing kits.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett says from now on, if a person tests positive, they should no longer expect a follow-up call from health officials.

“We're moving to more self-management when a person has either tested positive or been exposed to someone who tested positive, and less active outreach by departments,” Bassett said.

The health commissioner says the person should instead contact a new state website that offers guidance, based on federal CDC recommendations, for isolation and quarantine procedures.

Earlier in the pandemic, former Governor Andrew Cuomo partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Vital Strategies to set up a statewide contact tracing program, which he at the time called a “a nation-leading initiative.” Cuomo resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal.

Bassett said the new site offering guidance on quarantine procedures would launch Wednesday morning, but by the afternoon, the address ny.gov/isolation or ny.gov/quarantine still linked to the now-defunct state contact tracing site.

A spokeswoman for the state health department, Erin Silk, said the new website will be “forthcoming." Silk also defended the state’s former contact tracing program, saying “New York State's contact tracing program was one of the most robust in the nation with 82% of cases and 87% of contacts reached on average."

Adam Shrier, a spokesman for New York City’s contact tracing program, NYC Test & Trace Corps, says the city will continue its contact tracing program, saying “our mission ends when the pandemic does.” Outreach will be done via text messages.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.