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Governor: County health departments end contact tracing programs

As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps through the state, New York is ending its contact tracing program.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced the shift in strategy during a media briefing with Mary Bassett, M.D., the state’s health commissioner, on Tuesday.

“Omicron is very contagious. It has a very short incubation period and many more people are being tested,” Dr. Bassett said, explaining that local health departments are struggling to keep up with contact tracing especially in light of shortened isolation guidelines recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Positive infections will now be self-monitored, officials said, meaning isolation, quarantine and notifying anyone they were in close contact with will no longer involve health departments.

“It will help state and local health department staff focus on where we can make the biggest difference: testing and vaccination,” Dr. Bassett said.

According to the state’s current guidelines, those who are not fully vaccinated or fully vaccinated and eligible for a booster but not yet boosted and have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 are required to quarantine for five days and wear a mask while around others for an additional five days.

Fully vaccinated and boosted individuals who are asymptomatic after exposure to COVID-19 do not need to quarantine but should continue wearing a mask around others for 10 days.

Under the contact tracing program, those who tested positive for COVID-19 received a call from their state or local health department to answer questions about other people they may have been in contact with. Contact tracers would then call those close contacts with instructions to quarantine.

Now, that information will be available on new websites expected to be launched Wednesday morning, Dr. Bassett said.

All of the guidelines and forms that may be required to submit to an employer can be found at ny.gov/isolation and ny.gov/quarantine.

Ms. Hochul said Tuesday that the decision to cease or continue contact tracing will be up to individual counties.

“Should they decide to continue, they’re more then welcome to but this is in response to their request that we have almost 12,000 new cases a day and it is impossible to do contact tracing the way they have in the past,” she said.

Multiple counties upstate asked the state to make the change and some had already announced plans to end contact tracing. It’s unclear whether the Suffolk County Health Department will continue contact tracing efforts and spokespeople for the county executive’s office and department of health services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While COVID-19 cases remain high across the state — with 48,686 new cases reported in the last 24 hours — Ms. Hochul said those numbers reflect a “glimmer of hope” and believes the numbers will begin to plateau.

“It looks like we might be cresting over that peak,” the governor said of the winter surge. Statewide, there are 12,540 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 945 patients in Suffolk County. Of the 945 patients, 118 are in the ICU, according to data published by the county department of health services.