by Anne Blythe, North Carolina Health News 

A large party in Dare County several weeks ago is at the core of 27 COVID-19 cases troubling the public health director of this coastal tourist destination.

The gathering of about 100 young adults during the third weekend in June not only highlights how quickly the virus can spread, but also exposes behavior that shows just how cavalierly some defy orders meant to protect the public’s health.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

“The majority of people are being cooperative with our contact tracers, however, we have had more than a handful of recent cases where individuals have been rude to our callers, hung up on them, refused to take their calls and/or refused to give them information necessary to complete contact tracing,” Sheila Davies, the Dare County health director, said in an email.

“I personally have been cussed at, told I was lying and accused of making up test results to force people into isolation.”

Dare County draws large numbers of vacationers to its northeastern coastal communities most summers. It’s home to Kill Devil Hills and Manteo, the county seat located on Roanoke Island.

It’s unclear where the party was. Davies said in an email that she did not know the location.

The county health department keeps track on its website of the number of residents and non-residents who test positive for COVID-19. Testing and tracing is an important element of finding out where the virus is and trying to contain it from further spread.

‘Disheartening’ behavior

When people do not answer the calls of tracers or hang up on them, Davies said the recalcitrant behavior adds a nettlesome layer for tracers trying to protect the public health.

“Again, fortunately, this is not the majority but it sure makes already challenging work much more difficult,” Davies added. “I have developed tough skin over the years but it is disheartening to see my team members have to deal with the disrespect.”

In a video announcement on July 2, Davies raised her concerns about the party and those infected with the virus who are spreading it to friends and family members, one of whom was hospitalized elsewhere.

“We are required to contact individuals who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or who were determined to be a direct contact of a laboratory-confirmed positive case,” Davies said in her message.

Because some people have not complied with directives to isolate themselves from others after their contact with someone infected with COVID-19, Davies said she has no other alternative than issuing isolation or quarantine orders to a number of people.

“We are not making these calls because we think it’s fun or we have nothing better to do,” Davies said. “We are making these calls because these are critical pieces of trying to control the spread of the virus.”

New York party brings subpoenas for non-compliers

The behavior that Davies and the Dare County tracers have encountered has been happening elsewhere, too.

In Rockland County, New York, home to five towns and unincorporated villages along the west side of the Hudson just outside New York City, the local health commissioner issued subpoenas to eight people who had been to a large party in June.

The party was thrown in Clarkstown, N.Y. by a host who was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The event attracted several dozen people in their 20s.

After Patricia Schnabel Ruppert, the Rockland health commissioner, ran into resistance from some of the people known to be at the party, eight partygoers were subpoenaed and threatened with $2,000 fines for each day they failed to cooperate with contact tracers trying to get important information to help contain virus spread.

“My staff has been told that a person does not ‘wish to’ or ‘have to’ speak to my disease investigators,” Ruppert said at an outdoor media briefing last week.

“They hang up. They deny being at the party even though we have found their name from another party attendee or a parent provides us with the information. Many do not answer their cell phones or do not call back. Sometimes parents answer for their adult children and promise that they have been home consistently when they have not been. This must stop.”

Late-night crowds and more COVID-19

As in New York, North Carolina has seen an increase in laboratory-confirmed cases among people ages 18 to 49 since the statewide stay-at-home order was lifted in late May.

Though Gov. Roy Cooper recently issued a statewide order requiring face masks in most indoor settings and outdoors where social distancing is not possible, there continue to be scenes of young adults with their mouths and noses uncovered gathering in clusters outside restaurants that serve alcohol.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has not pinpointed one single reason for the virus spread among 18- to 49-year-olds.

At briefings with reporters, she describes the rise as related to more people moving about, the fierceness of the virus as well as a pervasive sense of invincibility among younger adults.

The problem is, Cohen stresses, those younger people can spread the virus to the more vulnerable by the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers.

“Particularly those who are younger, who say, ‘Eh, I can beat that COVID thing,’ well you may be able to beat it but maybe your older neighbor, that friend down the street, someone at your church, someone who you may not even know but at a grocery store, maybe they have chronic conditions, are older, they work in a long-term care setting, we all need to make sure we’re taking care of each other,” said Cohen last week during a press conference ahead of the July 4th weekend.

Any of those contacts can ignite illness that leads to hospitalizations and worries about a strained health care system.

Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.

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