Our Opinion: Tracing program may be a key weapon

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The high numbers of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, particularly in Boston and surrounding communities, continue to be a source of real concern. A community tracing program that should enable the state to better monitor the spread of COVID-19 will be of critical importance in reducing the number of those infected. The early returns on the state's monitoring program have been encouraging.

On April 3, Gov. Baker announced what he described as a first in the nation effort to reach out to residents who tested positive for COVID-19, learn who they had been in contact with, and inform them of their exposure and advise them of a course of action. Working with the nonprofit Partners In Health, a team of about 1,000 people was formed that as of Thursday had contacted 5,000 people. According to the governor, most of those called were appreciative of the notification and the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers to their concerns.

The governor said the early data provided the good news that the average person with COVID-19 had made close contact with only two people on average, as opposed to the originally projected number of 10. This indicates, the governor told the State House News Service, that residents staying at home as much as possible and engaging in social distancing are making a difference in curbing the spread of the virus, which he hopes will be better reflected by the numbers.

The governor added that the daily testing program has been confirming cases at a rate just under 20 percent, as opposed to the formerly routine highs around 30 percent. Mr. Baker said the state had "bent the curve" but he acknowledged that cases in the state had plateaued in recent days and further reductions are required before the state could be tentatively reopened for business. Berkshire confirmed cases have generally remained low with occasional daily spikes.

The governor said that there had been "conversations," as there have been in other states, about incorporating smartphone data into the tracing efforts. He acknowledged that this raises privacy and confidentiality issues, and it will be difficult to make people comfortable with such a program. In the case of this major pandemic, however, we suggest that privacy concerns be set aside for the greater good of reducing infections and saving lives.

But as the current tracing program continues, we urge Berkshire residents to answer calls if they receive them and cooperate with callers. The calls will come from an 833 or 857 area code and the caller ID will say "MA COVID team."

The fight ahead against COVID-19 will be difficult and of unknown duration. But we do know that social distancing measures have had a positive impact and must continue, and that masks or facial coverings should be worn in public in compliance with the governor's edict Friday. And we have seen initial evidence that the state's month-old contact tracing program will pay dividends.

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