ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Lehigh Valley and other parts of the state that have been some of the last to reopen during Pennsylvania's coronavirus shutdown reopened Friday, giving people more options to shop, dine, and find entertainment.
That shift has also made a public health tool all the more vital.
"Contact tracing is critical right now," said Vicky Kistler, head of Allentown's Health Bureau.
Experts say that shortcomings of human memory and a lack of cooperation can make the art of contact tracing a challenge for public health practitioners, but they say the importance of contact tracing motivates them to overcome the obstacles. Technology and education can help.
Allentown's Public Health Department has recruited more Spanish-speaking contact tracers and will have access to volunteers from the state if it needs more manpower.
When Allentown was at its peak, the city didn't have the resources to reach out to all the people who came into close contact with a person who tested positive.
"We couldn't keep up with it," Kistler said. "We asked people to self contact."
The city now has access to an automated system that will help cut down on man hours to do some of that work.
Chrysan Cronin, Director of Public Health at Muhlenberg College, said one obstacle is that people are sometimes reluctant to talk with a contact tracer.
"There is a possibility that you may not want to disclose all the people you've been in contact with. You also may not remember who you've had close contact with."
Cronin said there may also be hesitation among those who test positive to share contact information with officials.
"The other thing that people might fear is that they would be identified, and a stigma or blame attached with them," Cronin said.
That does not happen though. Contact tracers do not reveal the infected individual to his or her contacts.
"The people who are being contacted are only told they have been exposed to COVID," Cronin said.
Those contacts are also given information on testing and advised to quarantine, though they're not legally required to do so.
Cronin said that’s another challenge in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19. People may be hesitant to quarantine because it could interfere with their jobs.
One possible response to the memory and disclosure challenges could be on your smart phone though. It's optional, but you can choose to have your phone help you keep track.
"It’s kind of like your phones are interacting, and your phones are going to remember what they did more than you probably will," Cronin said.
If the owner of the phone tests positive, the information can be used to identify possible exposures.
"There's a record of where your phone has been and what other phones it's been close to."