As states loosen wide-ranging restrictions imposed to constrain the novel coronavirus, they’re also looking to deploy a huge new fleet of workers to keep cases under control.
Enter the contact tracers.
With interpersonal contact certain to increase as states lift COVID-19 restrictions, tracing whom infected people had contact with — and then isolating those contacts — will help contain it. But to be effective, states will need more than the handful of full-time staffers county and city-level public health offices employ to track patients with more routine diseases, like sexually transmitted infections.
“We’re concerned about having the workforce that we need,” said Janet Hamilton, the executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.
Hamilton’s group signed onto a letter late last month that called for $7.6 billion in federal funding to support about 100,000 new contact tracers and 1,600 new epidemiologists. Another group of experts called for $12 billion to hire another 180,000 tracers.
States have just begun spending money from the $2 trillion aid package signed into law in March for contact tracing. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) said this week that $75 million of the state’s $1.1 billion allotment under the act would be used for expanded tracing.
But the demand for testing comes as state budgets have been “decimated” and unable to solely meet their tracing needs, said Joanna Dornfeld, director of state affairs for the United States of Care, a nonprofit group that supports universal health care.
“While there has been some federal dollars for contact tracing… it’s not sufficient,” Dornfeld said. “So states have been approaching contact tracing in a variety of ways.”
Many states have moved their own employees around to focus more on contact tracing. Tracers don’t have to have a clinical background, though most do have an advanced degree, but others can be trained to do the work, said J.T. Lane, the chief population health and innovation officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Public health officials first repurposed employees with related backgrounds. Other public health workers, social workers and others with case management and interview training are natural targets for assignment, Lane said. Even some librarians in the San Francisco area were reassigned to tracing.
Ohio and Michigan hired outside firms to help with tracing and volunteer recruitment. Maryland contracted a University of Chicago-based research firm for some of the state’s tracing efforts. Others have activated their national guard and recruited volunteers.
North Carolina Health News reported yesterday that North Carolina has managed to get 400 tracers in place:
“The Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative, a new organization that DHHS is partnering with, has hired 152 new tracers to assist the 250 tracers already working in the state’s 85 county-based public health departments.”
But to reach the level of tracing needed for a disease as deadly and widespread as COVID-19, states will have to massively increase their workforce. Read more