Every summer, high school basketball teams normally play some type of summer league schedule or play in a few games and tournaments.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped that entirely, but it has shut down plans for one team temporarily.
Weber High’s boys basketball team — 28 players and four coaches, according to the Weber School District — is in isolation for the rest of this week after a potential exposure to somebody who tested positive for COVID-19.
According to the Bear River Health Department and the WSD, Weber went to Mountain Crest High in Hyrum on June 12, the same week that COVID-19 cases there dramatically spiked due to an outbreak at a meatpacking plant.
Weber and Mountain Crest played sophomore, junior varsity and varsity games. A Mountain Crest player who didn’t participate in the games tested positive for COVID-19 on June 14.
Weber’s team was made aware of the positive case by a process known as contact tracing, a phrase that’s been kicked around a lot more than usual due to its high use during the pandemic.
But Weber didn’t find out about the positive test until June 19, five days after the positive test was reported to BRHD, leaving the possibility open of unknown exposures over that period.
The Warriors’ situation highlights issues that health departments are facing with the contact tracing process, which is time consuming, depends a lot on public cooperation and is being conducted mainly by health department staffers who are already working in overdrive.
CONTACT TRACING EXPLAINED
Contact tracing is commonly used by health departments to track the spread of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, mumps, pertussis and sexually transmitted infections.
According to the Davis County Health Department, contact tracing is the process of identifying individuals who are a close contact to a case, meaning anyone who has been within 6 feet of the sick person for 15 minutes or longer up to two days before the ill person began showing symptoms.
“The goal of contact tracing is to identify and then notify close contacts of their exposure,” Sarah Willardson, communicable disease epidemiology bureau manager in the Davis County Health Department’s Family Health and Disease Control division, said in a statement sent through a department spokesperson. “We recommend close contacts quarantine for 14 days since their exposure and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Essentially, we’re hoping to slow the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging close contacts to stay at home and limit the number of individuals they could potentially expose.”
The process is done over the phone by health departments, which, quite literally, are in an all-hands-on-deck phase when it comes to contact tracing.
“Normally, it’s our communicable disease specialists (who conduct contact tracing). At this point, we have engaged the other members of our staff — environmental health scientists, people in our vital records office, accountants. We’ve got everybody assisting,” Weber-Morgan Health Department spokesperson Lori Buttars said.
Both Buttars and Willardson indicated that Weber-Morgan and DCHD are hiring additional staff to deal with the current surge of COVID-19 cases.
Buttars says Weber-Morgan hopes to have a team of 10-20 people whose sole responsibility is contact tracing so that the accountants and everyone else can go back to work.
It sounds simple enough: The health department calls somebody, asks them questions over a period of about 20-30 minutes relating to where that person has been and with whom they interacted over a period of time, then either advises them to quarantine or not.
There’s also a state database all health departments can access that has detailed information about positive cases, close contacts and more, which can make sharing information between health jurisdictions easier.
One thing health departments are finding out, especially more so in the COVID-19 era, is that contact tracing is by no means an airtight process, given that a positive case can have dozens of close contacts that departments have to screen.
STRAIGHT TO VOICEMAIL
Buttars said many people the health department reaches out to don’t pick up the phone because they don’t recognize the phone number.
Willardson said people need to expect the health department to be in touch with them if they’ve been out in public and interacting with people.
Then it’s a matter of getting people to remember everywhere they’ve been, everyone they’ve talked to and everything they’ve done in the prior days. That’s where a smartphone app has come into play.
According to Willardson, the Utah Department of Health worked with a developer to create the Healthy Together app, which gives the option of tracking users’ movement and location and “also has the ability to track other app-users who may have been within 6 feet for 15+ minutes, allowing the contact tracing process to be quickened.”
But like many apps that track people’s locations, the app has drawn criticism for privacy and functionality concerns. State lawmakers have expressed concern over the app keeping data after the pandemic is over.
The app also has taken heat for not working by the time it was supposed to. According to a June 8 report by KUTV, the state of Utah entered into a $6 million no-bid contract on March 27 with Twenty Labs to create the Healthy Together App. The contract had 10-, 30- and 45-day deadlines to deliver services, but 74 days after the start of the contract, the effort to contact trace hadn’t started through the app in Utah.
One thing health officials say people can do to make contact tracing easier is to keep a log of where they’ve been and who they’ve socialized with. Both departments advise people to minimize close contacts when going out and to wear a face covering.
It gets trickier with businesses. Weber-Morgan Health District is specifically asking businesses and other entities that are hosting group gatherings to keep track of who was there.
“We ask them to keep a log of their employees or their participants. If you have a large public event, you’ll have to have a record of who was in attendance and where they were in the venue,” Buttars said, noting that it isn’t an explicit requirement.
In that regard, the Weber-Mountain Crest situation was somewhat alleviated because Weber High basketball coach Landon Cosby had a roster of players and coaches that he sent to the Bear River Health Department upon request.
That made the situation easier for both the Weber School District and Weber-Morgan Health Department, but there still remains the potential that a Weber/Mountain Crest player, coach or close contact may have been unknowingly exposed to the virus.
According to a BRHD update on June 8, 287 workers at the JBS beef plant in Hyrum tested positive for COVID-19, out of around 1,400 employees.
For the next week, JBS workers and supporters protested, calling for the plant to be closed for cleaning and workers to be paid, and expressed concerns about working there.
On June 12, Weber took its sophomore, junior varsity and varsity basketball teams to Mountain Crest High for a game played under “proper health protocols” and with no fans present.
On June 14, an MCHS player who didn’t play in the game tested positive for COVID-19.
Weber High coach Cosby was informed June 19 by the BRHD of the positive test, as was school district spokesperson Lane Findlay.
Over the weekend, the district coordinated with WMHD and went about notifying anyone who may have been potentially exposed.
According to Bear River Health, the person who tested positive didn’t play in the game because coaches had been screening for COVID-19 symptoms.
It’s unclear if the person who tested positive was in the gym for the game. Further questions sent to the Bear River Health Department weren’t answered by the time of publication.
Asked why Weber still played in the game in Hyrum despite a particularly severe outbreak, Findlay indicated the district has asked its high school principals, coaches and athletic directors to “reevaluate their participation in all summer activities where they could be potential exposure to COVID-19.”