HARRISBURG – As social-distancing restrictions relax across more of the state — 54 of the state’s 67 counties will be in the green phase of the governor’s reopening strategy by next Friday — the state is ratcheting up testing and contact tracing as a key part of the state’s strategy for managing any resurgence of coronavirus.

The state now has 496 contract tracers — individuals who track down people who’ve come into contact with patients with coronavirus — but health officials concede it won’t be nearly enough.

“We intend to double our contact tracers in the near future and know that we may need to further increase that number,” said Nate Wardle, a Department of Health spokesman. Over the last week, there have been more about 11,500 tests for coronavirus completed in Pennsylvania each day, he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf has described the push to expanding testing and tracing as strategy to replace the need for shutting down the economy with a plan to “identify, isolate and eliminate” coronavirus across the state.

The state announced 686 new positive cases Friday. The state also announced that almost 12,000 tests had come back negative.

Wolf noted that the state’s progress comes as nationally coronavirus is still making gains in many states.

According to analysis by the New York Times, new COVID-19 cases are declining in less than half of all U.S. states and territories.

“In Pennsylvania, not only did we flatten the curve, but we are continuing to keep case counts down even as we open our commonwealth,” Gov. Wolf said. “We will continue to take a measured, phased approach to reopening that relies on science and health experts.”

The state’s progress comes as Wolf has faced pressure to accelerate the business reopening, including a bid by the General Assembly to get the courts to order Wolf to end his emergency order governing the state’s pandemic response.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a Wolf spokeswoman, said that the fact that the state is making progress managing the coronavirus outbreak doesn’t mean the threat is over.

“The comparison I would make is to naloxone,” the overdose-reversal drug. “Even though we have naloxone, we still have an opioid epidemic. The problem hasn’t gone away.”

Contact tracing

The state has been working with the existing network of community health nurses to get contact tracing underway in rural parts of the state, Wardle said.

“Community health nurses, being assisted by the varied partners across the state that are becoming involved in contact tracing efforts, are conducting contact tracing across the state. These individuals are not conducting contact tracing for an individual county, but rather for the six health regions in the state,”

The state has 16 contact tracers working in the 12 counties of north-central Pennsylvania. — Bradford, Centre, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga and Union.

There are 18 contact tracers in the 13 counties of northwestern Pennsylvania -- Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Venango and Warren.

And there are 30 contact tracers in the 11 counties in the health department’s southwestern Pennsylvania region, including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland.

A contact tracing subgroup was created as part of the incident command center established to oversee the state’s pandemic response, Wardle said.

“The subgroup is charged with building a robust contact tracing strategy for the Commonwealth to support the phased reopening process, and prepare for a potential resurgence in the fall,” he said.

State officials hope to form six regional partnerships with hospitals, academic institutions and community groups to coordinate the expansion of the contact tracing efforts, Wardle said.

Organizations and entities interested in partnering in these efforts should reach out to RA-DHCONTACTTRACING@pa.gov, he said.

The state is already working with hospitals and universities in southeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. Temple University students will be helping with contact tracing in Philadelphia and Lancaster General Health and the Penn State College of Medicine are heping with contact tracing in that part of the state, he said.

Geisinger Health System, UPMC and Wellspan Health have independently begun doing contact tracing, Wardle said. The state is working to coordinate those efforts with the Department of Health’s contact tracing work.

More testing

The state’s increased testing comes as more testing locations have been set up across Pennsylvania.

By Friday, there were 415 locations in Pennsylvania where people can get tested for coronavirus, including testing locations in all but five counties — Armstrong, Forest, Juniata, Perry and Potter counties.

Earlier this month, the state announced that to help improve access to coronavirus testing in rural areas, the Department of Health had worked with Quest Diagnostic to offer testing at Walmarts.

On June 5, the Walmarts in Clarion, Erie, Montoursville, Clearfield and Hermitage began offering coronavirus testing.

On Wednesday, five more Walmarts began offering testing as well -- locations in Mill Hall, Punxsutawney, Bradford, Cranberry and Warren.

The sites are open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. to test up to 50 registered patients daily. Registration is required one day in advance.

In addition, some pharmacies have begun offering coronavirus testing, Wardle said.

Rite Aid offers coronavirus testing by appointment at 20 locations in Pennsylvania, including Butler, Erie, Harrisburg and Johnstown.

CVS offers free coronavirus testing at 65 locations in Pennsylvania, including: Erie, Harrisburg, Mechanicsburg, New Castle and Williamsport stores. Patients must register in advance.

COVID-19 report

Pennsylvania:

• 686 new cases, 77,999 total

• 49 deaths, 6,162 total

 

Mercer County

• 114, increase of 4 in past week

• 6 fatalities