Professor of Biology Herm Lehman discussed “The Fundamentals of COVID-19, Contact Tracing, and Campus Safety” in a Zoom lecture on Sept. 16. He provided background information on the virus before explaining the role of contact tracing and detailing his work as a contact tracer in Oneida County.
Lehman shared data from April and September, comparing the number of positive cases and deaths from last spring and today on a county, state, and national level. While the numbers have, of course, multiplied greatly in this time, Lehman believes that the virus has been well-handled in both New York State and Oneida County.
After explaining the biological structure of the virus, along with the origins of the disease, Lehman broke down the timeline of a COVID-19 infection. A person can have contracted the virus for days without showing any symptoms, and the overlap between this incubation period and the infectious period — the time during which one can spread the virus — may last up to six days. This “pre-symptomatic but infectious” period is the time of which to be “especially wary,” Lehman said. Through careful contact tracing and testing, however, experts aim to mitigate the effects of this overlap.
Looking over the Hamilton-specific data, Lehman noted that “we have done a terrific job.” As of September 15, there have been no positive cases among students and only one among employees. “Just walking across campus,” he said, “I am impressed with the culture we have created about wearing masks. Students are vigilant, and I think they’re taking it seriously.”
At the county level, Lehman described the measures taken after someone tests positive: They are informed of their test result, instructed to isolate, and then interviewed to identify any contacts, who will then be required to quarantine for 14 days. As a contact tracing volunteer for the county this summer, Lehman checked in on people in isolation and quarantine. Making daily calls, one “gets to know these people pretty well,” he said, giving the example of one woman who lived alone while in quarantine. “I was like her best friend for 14 days,” he said, “and I just felt terrible for her.”
The diverse population of the Utica area also provided challenges. Families of refugees often lacked resources such as thermometers, which county officials would provide, in addition to necessities such as food. Due to language barriers, contact tracers often relied on the help of translators.
Finally, Lehman highlighted the extraordinary effort being made in Oneida County to keep people safe. “When I first joined, everybody was working seven days a week, 24/7,” he said. “The unsung heroes, to me, are the Oneida County public health officials.”