COVID-19: Anonymity may be essential in effective contact tracing ─Research

*Korean authorities perceived discrimination, stigma could hamper case-finding in stigmatised populations

*Screening approach, contact tracing supported by information technology tools

Web Editor | ConsumerConnect

A recent study indicated that when a large Coronavirus cluster was rumoured to have begun among gay men partying in Seoul, South Korea’s most cosmopolitan nightlife district, city health officials opted for anonymity in conducting contact tracing.

Anonymous testing was provided in clinics to counter the discrimination and stigma gay men in South Korea often experience, which would have created a barrier authorities worried could hamper case-finding, reports Bloomberg.

In a recent report, which appeared in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, researchers said that in response, more than 40,000 nightclub visitors and their contacts were tested, helping to arrest a nationwide outbreak that spread to at least 246 people.

The study further indicated that the screening approach and contact tracing were supported by information gleaned from location data from mobile phones, credit card payment history, public transportation records, and closed-circuit television footage.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute in Canada, in a tweet opined that such is an example of using available information tools to “rapidly and effectively quell what could have been a much larger outbreak.

“This is the gold standard of how to effectively conduct contact tracing, especially in stigmatised populations.”

South Korea has been widely lauded for its success in suppressing the pandemic. From a peak of more than 800 cases a day in February 2020, the country of 52 million people has managed to bring the number of new cases reported daily down to fewer than 100 since the beginning of April, report said.

The infections linked to nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district coincided with the easing of physical distancing rules on April 30.

That was also the start of the Golden Week holiday period, which drew people from across the country to the downtown neighbourhood, known for its foreigner-friendly clubs and bars and interspersed with upscale restaurants and kebab stalls.

As regards group consultation, the report stated that of 41,612 tests for the Coronavirus conducted during the first few weeks of May, 1,627 were on people whose identity remained anonymous, one of which was positive, the researchers said.

The idea for anonymous testing came after municipal government officials consulted with sexual-minority groups to discuss ways to encourage testing among gay men.

“Through the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, we advertised that screening clinics of public health centres were conducting anonymous testing for COVID-19.

“We also advertised anonymous testing through mass media,” wrote Cho Ryok Kang, a public health officer with the Seoul Metropolitan Government, and colleagues.

The research also highlights measures the Korean Government had successfully implemented to snuff out outbreaks stemming from one or two highly infectious individuals or “super spreaders.”

“Despite the low incidence of COVID-19 in the post-peak period of the pandemic, super-spreading related to visiting nightclubs in Seoul has the potential to spark a resurgence of cases in South Korea,” stated the researchers.

Recall that amid the rising number of cases and the refusal of some persons who test positive for COVID-19 to go to isolation centres, some states in Nigeria have said they will continue to treat the infected patients at isolation centres rather than resort to home treatment option.

They noted that getting persons who had tested positive for the virus to the isolation centres remained one of their strategies to contain the spread of the deadly virus.

Lagos State, considered to be epicentre of the outbreak of Coronavirus in the country, in May said it was considering adopting home treatment option for patients with mild symptoms.

Prof. Akin Abayomi, Lagos State Commissioner for Health, said the decision to consider home treatment for some COVID-19 patients became necessary because some residents who tested positive for the COVID-19 refused to go to the state isolation centres and had been practising self-treatment in various places.

Abayomi said: “There are people who are already practising self/home isolation on their own, because we can’t find them.

“The (phone) numbers they give us may be false or they don’t answer their calls. When you go out to pick them at their residences, they would have absconded from their residences. So, they are isolating themselves in different places.

According to the Commissioner for Health, “in effect, the concept of home-isolation is being practised by many Nigerians even though it is not yet a state or national practice.

“The people of Lagos are practising home isolation, which is one of the reasons why we as the government are trying to transition to home care because it is happening anyway, so we might as well regularise it and make it an official option.”

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