Image via Shutterstock PA poll watcher contracts coronavirus
Image via Shutterstock

“My whole objective is to make sure that the communities that I serve are safe,” a poll watcher told PennLive.

A poll watcher in Philadelphia tested positive for the coronavirus 10 days after the city’s June 2 primary, PennLive reports. Because the city’s contact tracing system is not fully staffed yet, the majority of voters and election workers that were at that polling location that day have not been notified. 

Although it’s unclear whether when the woman contracted the virus, the incident calls into question whether Pennsylvania and other states are prepared to deal with potential coronavirus exposure for state and federal elections.

Andrea Johnson, a paralegal who serves as a Democratic committeewoman, spent the primary at Andrew Hamilton School in West Philly. She told PennLive that over the course of the pandemic she has been careful to follow safety guidelines, including working from home and wearing a face covering when she goes out. 

“My whole objective is to make sure that the communities that I serve are safe … and that we’re made aware,” Johnson said. Despite testing positive, she added, she has not experienced any symptoms. “People aren’t getting tested, and you don’t know how many people like myself are walking around with a virus, and we don’t know … unless and until we get tested.”

Once she received her test results, Johnson said she disclosed her information to contact tracers in the city health department. She also provided a list of eight people she’d come in close contact with in the days leading up to her diagnosis. 

Although it generally takes between two and 14 days after exposure to the virus for symptoms to appear, it’s still unclear how long someone with COVID-19 is contagious. Scientists also don’t know how long a person who tests positive without actually developing symptoms can transmit the virus to others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Guidance for contact tracers from state health officials is to ask about the people a person came in contact with 48 hours prior to experiencing symptoms. Protocols, however, are used on a case-by-case basis. In general, the state will issue a press release or other form of public notification if there is no way to contact every single attendee, Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle told PennLive. 

In this instance, health officials do have another way to reach out to people who were potentially exposed by Johnson: voter registration databases. Thus far, however, no public notification has been released. 

James Garrow, who serves as a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Health, told PennLive that in cases like this, the city doesn’t issue blanket notifications. He explained that because the city is still seeing significant community transmission, all gatherings are potentially dangerous. 

“There is no public health benefit to highlighting one particular potential exposure event,” he said. “Once cases get low enough to begin contact tracing, we anticipate that widespread public notification of situations where adequate contact tracing cannot take place may happen.”

Experts agree that contact tracing will be key to continuing to reopen states safely and to pinpoint outbreaks before they become additional waves of infection. Although the city has not released how many contact tracers it has currently working, a recent report from Spotlight PA showed a total of 12 working with long-term facilities and hospitals in Philadelphia.

A tool created by George Washington University’s Institute for Health Workforce Equity estimates that Pennsylvania needs 3,111 contact tracers throughout the state to mitigate coronavirus spread.

“I would prefer to have this infrastructure in place as we go to green,” Rep. Dan Frankel, the Democratic chair of the House Health Committee, told Spotlight PA, “but that’s a decision the Department of Health has decided to go ahead with.”

“It strikes me that we’re still not at the point where we have the staffing or infrastructure necessary to do this on a broad scale,” he added. “There needs to be a much more organized and coordinated approach to contact tracing.”