Morris Brown College in Atlanta reinstates mask mandates and contact tracing with Covid cases reemerging

The American Heritage Dictionary “plagues”

  1. A highly infectious, usually fatal, epidemic disease; a pestilence.
  2. A virulent, infectious disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis (syn. Pasteurella pestis) and is transmitted primarily by the bite of fleas from an infected rodent, especially a rat. In humans it occurs in bubonic form, marked by lymph node enlargement, and in pneumonic form, marked by infection of the lungs, and can progress to septicemia.
  3. A widespread affliction or calamity seen as divine retribution.

Important Takeaways:

  • As COVID cases flare, some schools and businesses reinstate mask mandates
  • A familiar pandemic-era safety measure is making a comeback as new COVID-19 variants surface and cases of the disease flare in some parts of the U.S.: Mask mandates.
  • The number of COVID-19 cases has climbed for several weeks, with health authorities saying they’re tracking the spread of three new variants.
  • Morris Brown College in Atlanta this week announced that the small liberal arts school is reinstating its mask mandate for two weeks, citing COVID cases among students. As of Tuesday, the school required that all students and staff members wear masks, according to a statement from college president Dr. Kevin James. The college is also imposing restrictions on event sizes, including parties, and is resuming efforts to trace infections
  • The latest CDC data shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 30% across Georgia, driven by the spread of new variants.

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White House plans new system for international travel, contact tracing rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is developing a “new system for international travel” that will include contact tracing for when it eventually lifts travel restrictions that bar much of the world’s population from entering the country, a senior White House official said on Wednesday.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients told the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board the administration does not plan to immediately relax any travel restrictions citing COVID-19 Delta variant cases in the United States and around the world.

Reuters first reported early in August that the White House was developing vaccine entry requirements that could cover nearly all foreign visitors. The White House previously confirmed it was considering mandating vaccines for foreign international visitors.

“The American people need to trust that the new system for international travel is safer even as we – I mean at that point – we’ll be letting in more travelers,” Zients said on Wednesday, adding it will eventually replace existing restrictions.

“We are exploring considering vaccination requirements for foreign nationals traveling to the United States,” Zients said.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said at the same meeting that the spike in COVID-19 cases is preventing lifting international travel restrictions. “We want to move to a metrics-based system,” Raimondo said. “Before we can do that, we have to get a better handle on the domestic situation, which requires us to get everyone vaccinated.”

Zients said the new plan would replace the current restrictions and would be “safer, stronger and sustainable.” He did not lay out specific metrics for when the administration might relax restrictions.

“Vaccination rates matter here at home and other countries,” Zients said, urging travel companies like airlines to quickly mandate employee vaccines.

Some industry officials fear the Biden administration may not lift travel restrictions for months or potentially until 2022.

The extraordinary U.S. travel restrictions were first imposed on China in January 2020 to address the spread of COVID-19. Numerous other countries have been added, most recently India, in May.

The administration wanted to lift travel restrictions “as soon as we can,” Zients said.


Zients said the new system will include collecting contact tracing data from passengers traveling into the United States to enable the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to contact travelers if exposed to COVID-19.

The Trump administration in 2020 blocked an effort to require airlines to collect contact tracing information from U.S.-bound international passengers after some senior administration officials cited privacy concerns.

Zients said they want the new system to be “ready to press go on” when it is safe to lift restrictions. “We get the importance of this,” Zients said.

The United States currently bars most non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen countries in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The United States separately bars non-essential travel by most non-U.S. citizens at U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada.

Critics say restrictions no longer make sense because some countries with high rates of COVID-19 infections are not on the restricted list while some countries on the list have the pandemic under control.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and Aurora Ellis)

COVID-19 far more widespread in Indonesia than official data show – studies

By Tom Allard

JAKARTA (Reuters) – COVID-19 is many times more prevalent in Indonesia than shown by official figures in the world’s fourth most populous country, authors of two new studies told Reuters.

The country of 270 million has recorded 1.83 million positive cases, but epidemiologists have long believed the true scale of the spread has been obscured by a lack of testing and contact tracing.

The results of Indonesia’s first major seroprevalence studies – which test for antibodies – were revealed exclusively to Reuters.

One nationwide study between December and January suggested 15% of Indonesians had already contracted COVID-19 – when official figures at the end of January had recorded infections among only around 0.4% of people.

Even now, Indonesia’s total positive infections are only around 0.7% of the population.

The results of the survey were not unexpected given under reporting, said Pandu Riono, a University of Indonesia epidemiologist who worked on the study carried out with help from the World Health Organization.

Siti Nadia Tarmizi, a senior health ministry official, said it was possible the study was preliminary, but there might be more cases than officially reported because many cases were asymptomatic.

She said Indonesia had low contact tracing and a lack of laboratories to process tests.

Based on blood tests, seroprevalence studies detect antibodies which show up people who likely already contracted the disease. The official figures are largely based on swab tests, which detect the virus itself and only reveal those who have it at the time.

Antibodies develop one to three weeks after someone contracts the virus and stay in the body for months.


Seroprevalence studies in other countries – including India – have also revealed more widespread infections.

“Our official surveillance system cannot detect COVID-19 cases. It is weak,” said the principal investigator for the University of Indonesia study, Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono, who commented on it but was not authorized to confirm the figures.

“Contact tracing and testing in Indonesia is very poor and explains why so few cases are detected.”

Fellow study author Pandu said that although the study showed the wider spread of the virus, Indonesia still appeared to be far from achieving herd immunity – making it a priority to speed up vaccination.

Just 6% of Indonesia’s targeted population of 181 million have been fully vaccinated with two doses so far, while 9.4% have had one shot, according to government data.

Preliminary results of a separate seroprevalence study in Bali, done by the University of Udayana, found 17 per cent of those tested in September and November appeared to have been infected, principal investigator Anak Agung Sagung Sawitri told Reuters.

That was 53 times higher than rate of infection based on the cases officially recorded at the time on the tourist island, which is planning to reopen to international visitors next month.

The reopening is opposed by some public health experts, including academic and doctor Ady Wirawan.

“Testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine is very, very weak in Bali,” he said.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Kim Coghill)

U.S. to bolster public health workforce to fight COVID-19, future pandemics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration is releasing $7.4 billion to bolster the nation’s healthcare workforce amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for future epidemics and health challenges, the White House said in a statement on Thursday.

The funds, allocated as part of the $1.9 trillion aid package pushed by President Joe Biden and passed by Congress in March, will be used to recruit and hire a range of healthcare workers to help with vaccinations, testing and contact tracing, it said.

Of the $7.4 billion, $4.4 billion will go to states and local public health departments to address disease outbreaks and hire school nurses. It will also be used to expand the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to track outbreaks and to create a service corps dedicated to public health. The remaining $3 billion will boost local public health workforces ahead of future challenges, with an emphasis on recruiting diverse candidates, the White House said.

The United States is making progress in its efforts to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down much of the country last year and roiled the economy, with more than 582,000 deaths to date.

After a winter spike in COVID-19 infections, new cases have fallen for four straight weeks and deaths have also dropped as more than one-third of the country has been vaccinated. Warmer weather has also helped to curtain the spread of the virus.

Nearly 154 million people in the United States had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, U.S. officials said. The pace of vaccinations, however, has slowed and U.S. health officials have said variants such as the one emerging from India could still pose a threat.

Public health experts for years have decried a lack of funding for the CDC and other areas and have warned about the potential devastating impact from epidemics of SARS, Ebola, swine flu and other diseases.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Simao)

UK detects South African coronavirus variant in people with no travel links

By Reuters Staff

LONDON (Reuters) – Eleven people in different regions have tested positive for the South African coronavirus variant without having any links to people who have travelled recently, prompting mass testing in the areas to contain the outbreak.

The government said on Monday the cases were now self-isolating and robust contact tracing had taken place to trace their contacts and ask them to self-isolate.

Residents in eight postcodes – three in London; two in the south east and one in the West Midlands, east of England, and the North West – would now be tested for the new coronavirus whether they are showing any symptoms or not under what is known as “surge testing” it said.

“Every person over 16 living in these locations is strongly encouraged to take a COVID test this week, whether they are showing symptoms or not,” the government said in a statement.

The government said in January it had detected cases of both the South African and Brazilian variants, but all were linked to travel.

In total, Public Health England said it had identified 105 cases of the South African variant since Dec 22.

All viruses mutate frequently, and scientists have identified several variants of the novel coronavirus found to be more transmissible than the original strain.

The emergence of more infectious variants has raised questions over whether vaccines will prove as effective in containing them.

Scientists have said the South African variant appears to be more transmissible, but there is no evidence it causes more severe disease. But several laboratory studies have found that it reduces vaccine and antibody therapy efficacy.

Clinical trial data on two COVID-19 vaccines – from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson – released on Saturday showed they had less ability to protect against the illness caused by the South African variant.

But the Surrey Local Resilience Forum said there was no evidence the regulated vaccine would not protect against it. The Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are being rolled out across Britain.

White House initiated contact tracing after aide tested positive, released Trump results within hour

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Contact tracing was put into place at the White House immediately after Trump aide Hope Hicks tested positive for coronavirus, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Friday.

“Immediately there was contact tracing that was put into place and all of the necessary procedures,” McEnany said. She said Trump got his positive result on Thursday night. “Within an hour, we put out that information to the American people.”

“It’s safe to say that you’ll be seeing and hearing from the president as he moves forward with his working schedule,” she added. “We’re exploring a number of different ways to do that, but he wants to talk to the American people.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Diane Craft)

New York City restaurants can resume indoor dining on Sept 30: governor

(Reuters) – New York City restaurants will be able to resume indoor dining at 25-percent capacity with some restrictions on Sept. 30, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference on Wednesday.

Cuomo said the restrictions will include mandatory temperature checks at the door and requiring one member of each party to provide contact information to enable contact tracing should there be a COVID-19 outbreak.

Cuomo also said the state would establish a whistleblowing system whereby patrons can report restaurants not in compliance.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Editing by Franklin Paul and David Gregorio)

Special Report: Local governments ‘overwhelmed’ in race to trace U.S. COVID contacts

By Benjamin Lesser, Dan Levine, Jaimi Dowdell and Andrea Januta

(Reuters) – The soaring number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has far outstripped many local health departments’ ability to trace the contacts of those infected, a step critical in containing the virus’ spread.

With the pandemic claiming about a thousand American lives a day, many city and county departments say they lack the money and staff to expeditiously identify people who have been exposed, according to a Reuters survey of 121 local agencies, as well as interviews with dozens of state and local officials, epidemiologists and tracers.

The United States badly lags other wealthy countries in contact tracing, including South Korea and Germany, which ramped up their programs months ago. Contributing to the faltering U.S. response is the government’s failure to provide accurate and timely diagnostic testing, something other countries were able to roll out much faster and more broadly.

On Alabama’s hard-hit Gulf Coast, health department staffers are stretched so thin they are directing individuals who test positive to notify any contacts themselves, said Rendi Murphree, director of Mobile County’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services.

“Everything is overwhelmed,” she said.

Adding to the challenge has been a sharp politicization of the COVID-19 response, with many Americans, from President Donald Trump on down, often portraying mask-wearing and other measures as an infringement of personal liberty.

The United States has by far the world’s largest COVID-19 caseload, with over 4.6 million confirmed infections and more than 155,000 deaths. Yet public health measures during the pandemic have been largely decentralized, coming down to patchwork efforts by state, and especially local, governments. Federal funding has proved unreliable, caught up in fierce debate over the crisis.

Now, as part of log-jammed negotiations over new relief legislation, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are arguing over funding proposals for testing and tracing that are tens of billions of dollars apart. As of June, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield said the country had 27,000 contact tracers – about a quarter of what has been recommended.

Although some local health departments told Reuters their efforts have proved successful – and many said they were worthwhile – several researchers described U.S. contact tracing overall as too little, too late.

“You don’t clean up an oil spill with paper towels,” said Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard public health school.

On this point, the Trump administration does not disagree. Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told Reuters that given the spread of the disease, mask wearing and other prevention measures are more effective.

“It is really impossible to contact trace,” Giroir said, until the numbers come down.

The agencies responding to the Reuters survey serve at least 27 million residents in large cities such as Minneapolis, Boston, and Cleveland, as well as smaller communities including Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Dare County, North Carolina. Collectively, as of last week, they accounted for at least 230,000 COVID-19 cases and 7,300 deaths. The responses cover the week ending June 22. Reuters followed up in late July with several departments, such as Las Vegas and Kansas City, Kansas, where officials said circumstances had not improved.

Among the findings:

• The 40 local health departments with the highest caseloads have fallen far short in their efforts to reach patients who tested positive. Only about half the departments with more than 1,000 cases had reached close to all infected people at the time of the survey. The CDC recommends that newly positive cases be interviewed within 24 hours.

“It’s just impossible with the kind of numbers that we are seeing,” said Devin Raman, a senior disease investigator at the Southern Nevada Health District, including Las Vegas.

• Nearly half of the local departments said they lacked sufficient staff and funds. In Missouri, many said they hadn’t received any additional money for contact tracing. “Some of them are literally running out of money right now,” Diane Weber, executive director of the Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies, said in July.

• Local health officials in six states complained that efforts to create statewide contact tracing systems have been hampered by issues including technical problems and poor coordination. In some cases, this has led to tension and a costly duplication of efforts, with state and local tracers calling the same people.

“We’re not going to drop the ball on tracing in our county and leave it to the state. If we did that, we’d probably all be dead,” said Joni Wise, administrator of the Vigo County Health Department in Indiana.

A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Health acknowledged that people are more likely to answer a local call from a municipal health department than an “833” number from the state’s centralized call center.

• More than three dozen public health departments said they were hindered by some residents’ failure to answer their phones or to provide accurate information when they did. Several departments said people they called had objected to contact tracing as an infringement on their privacy rights.

“We get a variety of responses from yelling and hanging up, to those telling us that they have already contacted all of their friends and will not give us those names,” said Kenosha County health director Jen Freiheit in Wisconsin.


From the early days of the pandemic, public health experts emphasized the importance of contact tracing, a decades-old strategy aimed at interrupting infectious disease transmission. It involves interviewing infected people, identifying people whom they may have exposed to infection and trying to keep those individuals from passing the virus to someone else.

“If any country is saying contact tracing is difficult, it is a lame excuse,” World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in June. He pointed to the WHO’s success in halting an Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo by tracing 25,000 contacts a day in a remote area, where some 20 armed groups were fighting.

Under the best of circumstances, contact tracing is not a panacea. It is only one of many public health tools commonly deployed against infectious disease. The approach is particularly challenging during a fast-moving epidemic in which people may be infectious but don’t fall sick right away. In addition, a culture of individualism and legal protections inhibit U.S. authorities from forcing people to stay inside and divulge their social relationships.

Still, some other democracies have devised a more coordinated testing and tracing strategy than the United States.

In Germany, a country with about 400 public health offices, contact tracing early on was part of a collaborative effort. Workers from other municipal government offices lent a hand. The national Robert Koch Institute said it deployed hundreds more “containment scouts” – mostly medical students – to help. Daily confirmed cases in Germany now number in the hundreds. Deaths per day are down to the single digits, from a peak of over 300 on April 16.

In the United States, daily case counts that had been falling since mid-April began climbing again in July, reaching a peak of 77,299 July 16.

The federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach to contact tracing, as well as other public health measures during the pandemic. Though the CDC has issued guidance for contact tracing, it is not deeply involved. And though Congress authorized billions of dollars in aid that could pay for tracing, the money is not required to be used that way.

Trump and many of his fellow Republicans in Congress have often downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19. In July, the White House tried to block new funding for testing and contact tracing – something the White House later disavowed amid opposition even from Trump’s own party. Since then, Senate Republican leaders have proposed a relief bill that would dedicate $16 billion for the effort, while a bill passed by the Democrat-dominated House would provide $75 billion for testing, tracing and hospital support. Negotiations are at a crawl.

A senior CDC official told Reuters in a statement that the agency has provided more than $12 billion across the country to address the COVID 19 crisis, including a recent grant of $10.25 billion for testing and other activities such as contact tracing. In addition, the official said, the CDC has provided staff and extensive technical support to states.

“Contact tracing is most effective when local communities embrace it and drive it,” said the official, who declined to be named. “The Administration has empowered states with funding to lead these efforts.”


A few days before Las Vegas casinos reopened in June, state health officials in Nevada predicted a wave of coronavirus cases.

The state should have as many as 700 people working on contact tracing to meet the surge, the officials wrote in a May 29 COVID-19 “plan of operations,” which Reuters obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. Referring to the roughly 100 tracing staffers then aboard, the plan said staffing “falls short of what is needed to effectively manage the need.”

It took two months to staff up. As of July’s end, Nevada had 744 staffers statewide, a Nevada Health and Human Services department spokeswoman said.

Still, Las Vegas and surrounding areas have struggled. The Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) saw about 1,000 new cases a day by mid-July, up ten-fold from the first week of June (although new cases have dropped precipitously in recent days).

A SNHD official told legislators last week that the district had less than half the tracing staff needed to serve Clark County, home to Las Vegas.

Raman, the senior investigator in the southern district, estimated in mid-July that her department was able to interview between 25% and 40% of people who recently tested positive.

“Right now, unfortunately, we are just trying to keep our heads above water.,” she told Reuters.

It was a similar story in other hotspots. Health officials for Harris County, Texas, who serve the Houston suburbs, have reported about 550 cases a day since July 1, up from about 200 a day during the first half of June.

Harris County reported reaching about 60% of the newly positive people to interview about contacts. In general, epidemiologists told Reuters, the goal should be at least 75%.

Martha Marquez, a county spokesperson, described the 60% figure as “good” but said the county was “looking into how to grow our success rate.”

Other departments struggle to keep potentially infectious people in quarantine. Ideally, a tracer notifies contacts, refers them for testing and advises them to stay home and away from others. Then someone in the department follows up to see if they need anything to stay indoors – house-cleaning supplies or food, for instance. It’s no guarantee they won’t go out, but tracers say it can make a difference.

In Alabama’s Mobile County, with case counts exploding to more than 1,000 cases a week by mid-July, follow-up was next to impossible. “It is not going well,” said Murphree, the disease surveillance director.

For months, the health department in Mobile relied only on existing health staff for contact tracing – as well as a few volunteers. It took until mid-July for the department to hire two people dedicated to that work, positions that the federal government has promised to fund, Murphree said.

The county has not yet received the money, she said.

This lack of resources is being felt across the country.

Despite pleas for assistance, local health departments in Missouri have received little to no COVID-19 funding from the state. Meanwhile, the state recently announced a $15 million package to help support tourism, using funding from the federal CARES Act – a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress in March.

“Tourism is a major employer and a major boon to the economy of Missouri,” said Scott Clardy, assistant director of the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services. “That being said, here we are not being able to investigate cases, but we’re giving $15 million to the tourism industry to bring in more people.”

Clardy said, however, that he was expecting almost $1.8 million in CARES Act funding for contact tracing and testing to become available as early as this week.

Contact tracing efforts are strained not just by the sharp rise in cases but by the long delays in getting COVID-19 test results back.

David Holcombe, the director of the Louisiana Department of Health for the central portion of that state, said that, as of mid-July, the turnaround was as long as 14 days.

The lag time makes “contact tracing virtually useless,” he said. That’s because by the time positive results come back, the infected person has potentially had many more contacts, who have potentially infected others themselves.


Not all contact-tracing efforts are in disarray.

In San Francisco, cases are rising but not spiking to the level seen in other places in the country. So far, contact tracers say they have been able to keep up – largely through the efforts of redirected city workers.

Before the pandemic, program manager Jana De Brauwere could be found at San Francisco’s main public library, using one of the four languages she speaks to help patrons without computers apply for jobs and other services online.

Since April, dozens of librarians, attorneys and other San Francisco city workers have been redeployed to trace COVID-19 contacts – though at some cost to the city’s other public services.

After about 20 hours of training, De Brauwere started calling people exposed to the disease, arranging for supplies to help them quarantine, and referring them for testing. Soon she was promoted to team leader.

A typical shift now starts at 7 am, when De Brauwere parcels out roughly 100 contacts for her eight-tracer team to interview that day. De Brauwere has given up all her library work. “This is the priority,” she said.

The city’s contact tracing program, which is getting help from nonprofit organizations, reported reaching over 80% of people with positive tests through the third week of July, an exceptionally high rate. Similarly, health officials in Vigo County, Indiana, report being able to interview nearly all positive cases. Wise, the county health administrator, said local contact tracers have been more successful at reaching people than those at the state level.

The state’s tracers often are contractors who don’t understand the area, she said. That unfamiliarity can alienate residents and make them less likely to share critical health information, she said.


Even with sufficient money and staff, health departments often have trouble convincing people to pick up the phone and cooperatively answer questions.

Playing into that problem are political divisions throughout the country over how seriously to take the pandemic and what responsibilities the government should or should not impose on the public.

In Texas, a Republican state representative in June called for ending the contact tracing program as “a threat to our privacy and individual liberties.” The Republican-controlled Kansas legislature in June passed a COVID-19 bill with bipartisan support ensuring that no civil or criminal penalties would apply to anyone who refuses to provide information to a tracer. Such penalties, to the limited extent they are allowed under public health laws, are rarely enforced.

People may be reluctant to engage with tracers for a variety of other reasons, including embarrassment for exposing themselves to infection or fear they’ll lose their job.

Sometimes, contact tracers are hindered by misunderstandings.

In early June, in Berrien County, Michigan, contact tracer Karen Kortebein received a call from a public health nurse in a neighboring county. An employee of a long-term care facility there – a resident of Kortebein’s county – had contracted the virus. Kortebein knew the woman. She’d been speaking with her since her husband tested positive in May.

Kortebein had asked the woman then if she was working outside her home. The woman said no. But in reality she had been working – possibly while infectious – with a particularly vulnerable population until her husband became ill, something contact tracers needed to know as soon as possible.

It turned out the woman, whose first language is not English, had misunderstood the question. Also, she was confused about the risk she posed because she’d had conflicting test results and had yet to develop symptoms.

For Kortebein, it was a lesson in how easily wires can get crossed.

“I was kind of blown away,” she said.

(Benjamin Lesser and Andrea Januta reported from New York, Dan Levine from San Francisco, and Jaimi Dowdell from Los Angeles. Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin and Alexandra Alper in Washington, D.C. Editing by Michele Gershberg, Janet Roberts and Julie Marquis)

California sees record 12,000 new coronavirus cases, surpasses New York as worst-hit state

By Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia

(Reuters) – California on Wednesday overtook New York, the original epicenter of the U.S. novel coronavirus outbreak, as the worst-hit state for cases, according to a Reuters tally of county data.

Total cases in the most populous U.S. state rose by 12,112 on Wednesday to a total of more than 421,000, the biggest single-day increase since the pandemic started. California deaths also set a one-day record, rising by 159.

New York has recorded by far the most deaths of any U.S. state at more than 32,000 with California in fourth place with over 8,000 deaths.

If California were a country, it would rank fifth in the world for total coronavirus cases behind only the United States, Brazil, India and Russia. New York has more than 413,500 cases and has been adding on average 700 new ones a day in July. In California there is an average of 8,300 new cases a day.

The rapid increase of cases has made it difficult to trace the pathogen’s path through the community through contact tracing, a process of interviewing people who test positive for the virus to find out how they were exposed, and whom they in turn might have exposed, California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly said on Tuesday.

“No one anticipated building a program to contact trace the number of cases we’re seeing here,” Ghaly said at a news conference, referring to Los Angeles and other counties struggling to trace cases of the disease.

Since its crush of cases earlier in the year, New York state has managed to get the virus under control, reporting the fewest hospitalizations in four months on Monday and only two deaths on Tuesday.

Nearly 143,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 – nearly a quarter of the global total.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia in Bengaluru, and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Uber offers COVID-19 contact tracing help amid chaotic U.S. response

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc has quietly launched a service to give public health officials quick access to data on drivers and riders presumed to have come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19, company officials told Reuters.

The service, offered free of charge, could help burnish the image of the ride-hailing giant, which recently launched a new ad campaign spotlighting its “No Mask, No Ride” policy in the United States.

Now being promoted to government health officials in all the countries where it operates, the service provides health departments with data about who used Uber’s services and when and allows health agencies to urge affected users into quarantine, the company officials said.

Information on an individual can be accessed in a few hours, the officials said, with the company considering COVID-19 an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury.

Though Uber has provided the data for months now, it has not been put to use in many U.S. virus hotspots.

A recent Reuters review of contact tracing policies by 32 U.S. state and local health departments found most did not use ride-hailing data to track the virus spread. Among those neglecting the data are Texas and Florida, states that have seen a surge in new infections.

Unlike several other countries, the United States has no federal program or mobile application to trace the contacts of people with coronavirus infections, a measure deemed crucial by the World Health Organization in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not respond to requests for comment.

Dozens of U.S. states in recent weeks began hiring thousands of workers to interview infected patients, identify people they have been in contact with and then order those individuals to isolate. Ride-hailing data could play an important role in that effort, health officials and experts said, because it identifies a larger set of people outside the direct social circle of an infected individual.

“This data could be potentially life-saving in cities where many people use those services,” said Mieka Smart, an epidemiology professor at Michigan State University and a member of the COVID-19 contact tracing work group in Flint.

Uber has long provided data to U.S. law enforcement officials in emergencies or criminal investigations, companies officials said. It first began to focus on health-related issues in 2019, when a resurgence of U.S. measles cases prompted several health departments to request data, the officials said.

In January, company executives flew to Los Angeles to meet with the local health department and CDC officials to discuss how Uber’s data could best be used, according to Uber’s chief of global law enforcement, Mike Sullivan.

The discussion quickly turned to the novel coronavirus, which at the time was only beginning to spread outside of China.

“Our timing ended up being beneficial in that it allowed us to get ahead before COVID started ramping up globally,” said Sullivan, a veteran U.S. prosecutor who leads a team of 100 Uber employees handling data requests around the clock.

In the first half of the year, Uber received a total of some 560 coronavirus-related requests from public health departments in 29 countries, most of which were processed by the company within two hours, company officials said. That compares to only 10 requests from health departments globally in 2019.

Out of the total, 158 requests were filed by health authorities in nearly 40 locations around the United States.

Using the new portal, designed for exclusive use by public health departments, data can be sought based on trip receipts or passenger names. Health officials are prompted to specify what action they want Uber to take as part of the service.

“We want to make sure that they are the experts and we follow their recommendations” on whether to block temporarily a driver, rider or courier from using Uber’s service, Sullivan said. Uber customers with a confirmed infection are automatically blocked from the platform for at least 14 days.

Uber has seen an increase in contact tracing requests from countries credited for their initial success in containing the virus, such as Australia and New Zealand, Sullivan said. He added that contact tracing was also much more coordinated in several European countries than in the United States, including in the UK.

U.S. contact tracing efforts vary from region to region. In some areas, the effort is coordinated on the state level, while cities or counties take charge in others, requests from health departments show.

In Massachusetts, for example, local health departments gather trip details if an infected person tells investigators they have taken a ride-hailing trip. That information is then transferred to the state’s health department, which reaches out to Uber or Lyft to request data.

Lyft said it provided data to U.S. and Canadian health officials through its Law Enforcement Request system, but declined to provide further details, citing privacy reasons.

In California, local officials handle the entire contact tracing process. San Francisco so far has requested ride-hailing data related to the coronavirus pandemic in a handful of cases, according to Michael Reid, a physician who heads the city’s contact tracing program.

“In the end, we need all the data we can to be effective,” said Reid. “Whether it’s Uber or Lyft, or the priest telling you who was in church on Sunday.”

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Tom Brown)