LONDON (AP) – The head of the World Health Organization on Monday dismissed complaints from countries complaining that contact tracking is too difficult to implement as a “lame” control strategy for the coronavirus pandemic.
The UN health agency has repeatedly informed countries that stopping their COVID-19 outbreaks requires a strong contact tracking program, a labor-intensive process to detect contacts of people with coronavirus to ensure that people at risk isolate themselves.
Countries with major outbreaks of COVID-19, including Britain and the US, have said in recent months that there are simply too many contacts to track to set up an effective system.
Britain had vowed to introduce a world-class contact tracing system earlier this month. But the UK eventually threw out the digital app it developed for that purpose, and politicians have recognized that the program is not yet running at full strength, despite the recruitment of thousands of workers. In recent weeks, UK health officials have said their contact tracers fail to reach about a quarter of people with the virus, leaving thousands free to transmit COVID-19.
At a news conference on Monday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed to his emergency director, Dr. Michael Ryan, as an example of someone who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to perform contact tracing, citing the work of Ryan – wearing a bulletproof helmet and vest – during an Ebola outbreak in an area of Congo where armed groups had attacked and murdered health workers.
“He felt he should do everything he could to stop Ebola and show that saving lives requires that level of commitment,” said Tedros.
Tedros said it was not acceptable for some countries to claim that there were too many contacts to track down and that the process itself was too difficult. He previously praised contact tracking programs from countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and China, where teams of health professionals tracked tens of thousands of people and isolated those exposed to the virus.
Tedros said that well-equipped non-wars countries have little excuse for not conducting good contact detection.
“If contact tracking helps you win the fight, you do it, even if you risk your life,” he said. “If a country says contact tracking is difficult, it’s a weak excuse.”
He noted that it would have been six months on Tuesday since the WHO was first notified by China of an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases, the first sign of the emergence of the coronavirus. The disease has since made more than 10 million people sick and killed about 500,000 people.
WHO said the pandemic “accelerated,” especially in America.
“The harsh reality is that this is far from over,” Tedros said. “The worst is yet to come.”
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