Health officials in Indiana say they are investigating whether anyone was exposed to COVID-19 by Alabama residents following Friday night’s reported death of a Crimson Tide fan who was in Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament last weekend.
Marion County officials say in a statement provided to the NCAA they are investigating possible exposure based on an Alabama newspaper report that cited multiple sources it didn't identify in reporting 23-year-old Alabama student Luke Ratliff died of complications related to COVID-19.
Bryan Ratliff tells The Tuscaloosa News his son died after a brief illness. The elder Ratliff could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday by The Associated Press.
The younger Ratliff was hospitalized shortly after returning to Tuscaloosa on March 29, one day after attending Alabama’s game against UCLA at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the News reported.
The Marion County Health Department released the following statement to WRTV Saturday evening:
"Based on a recent news story, the Marion County Public Health Department and the Indiana State Department of Health are contacting the Alabama Department of Public Health to determine if anyone in Indianapolis may have been exposed to COVID-19 by any Alabama resident who visited Indianapolis in recent days. We are conducting an investigation following the county and state's standard contact tracing procedures. We continue to encourage residents and visitors to practice the simple and important habits that keep us all safe: wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing."
WRTV has also reached out to the NCAA, but we are still waiting to hear back.
Last month, Dr. Virginia Caine spoke to the safety of fans and players during the tournament.
“If you're a spectator in our seats, we will know who you are. I will know what spectator is sitting in what seat. I will know what hotel you're staying at, if you're staying at a hotel, I'll have an address. I will be able to quickly and very robustly be able to identify anyone who turns out to be positive in our community and we can do our investigative evaluation, recommendations, and testing very rapidly," Dr. Caine said in a media call on March 11th.
"I think it's gone fairly well we can't get into specifics with events or patient identifiers, but I can say we had a good working relationship with NCAA and I think we've had a good process in place with the Marion County health department,” Shandy Dearth with the IUPUI’Director of Undergraduate of Epidemiology Program at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health. She is also the head of the contact tracing program for Marion County and the City of Indianapolis.
On Monday, WRTV reached out to the county health department with several questions about contact tracing and the NCAA Tournament. Several of the questions were left unanswered, including anything more about Ratliff, and as well as how many investigations and positive cases of fans stemmed from the NCAA Tournament due to privacy concerns.
“We identified our college and university team to kind of be a lead on NCAA work for the tournament because that's the same age crowd we would have in town for this,” Dearth said.
She added the dedicated team consists of 17 tracers and three supervisors. Another 150 tracers are on standby, but when contact tracing crosses state lines-- "There's no set time frame. Every state follows a different protocol and has different resources available,” Dearth said.
Fellow public health expert Thomas Duszynski said contact tracing is an involved process, but he feels most health departments understand the importance of working together.
“Contact tracing is most effective at the beginning and at the end of infectious disease events, Duszynski said.
WRTV Reporter Nikki DeMentri asked: “Are we at the end?" Duszynski responded: “I don't think we're quite at the end yet…But these are the steps that we need to take to get to the end faster.”
Both experts said Monday contact tracing is not going away any time soon.
“We’ve actually trained all of our contact tracers across the board that if they take in any calls or as they do any contact tracing that they go ahead and specifically ask if they’ve been in town for any activities because we know you can develop symptoms up to 14 days after exposure,” Dearth said.