Librarians, national guard recruited for states’ new contact tracing armies

Image: Pennsylvania Department of Health

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

Experts: U.S. should not make the same mistake it made during and after the Great Recession

Pandemic fuels state-level feuds over gun rights

COVID-19 has ignited the debate over gun rights as states grapple with whether to allow gun sales while other retailers are forced to shutter.

Stores selling guns and ammunition legally remain open in 45 states, including North Carolina. Sellers and manufacturers are considered essential services that are exempt from stay-at-home orders. Where governors or local officials have ordered stores closed, the National Rifle Association and its allies have sued, saying the mandates restrict Second Amendment rights.

Although every preliminary judicial decision so far in cases targeting state stay-at-home orders has gone against gun advocates, there are indications the aggressive legal strategy is affecting policy. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in the state’s favor, but Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, later revised his order to allow gun stores to open on a limited basis. Fellow Democratic Govs. John Carney of Delaware and Phil Murphy of New Jersey also revised their states’ orders to allow gun sales.

Orders in Michigan, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York and Washington still require gun stores to close while stay-at-home orders are in effect. Gun-rights groups have sued in three of those states, but not in Michigan or Washington.

Adam Kraut, the director of legal strategy at the Firearms Policy Coalition, a gun rights group that has sued over other orders, said the group hasn’t found suitable plaintiffs who were forced to close by authorities in those states.

Representatives for Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokesman Mike Faulk confirmed the state does consider gun stores nonessential, but indicated that could change.

“There are discussions going on right now around gun shops and ranges, in addition to other businesses, on whether to deem them essential,” he said.

The state has not brought enforcement action against any gun stores, he said.

In Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Mexico and New York, gun-rights advocates have sued to lift statewide restrictions and they’ve sued in California over local orders.

Groups have also sued Virginia for closing indoor shooting ranges and Georgia state courts for pausing the issuance of licenses to carry guns.

Gun control groups say orders that close stores don’t impinge upon constitutional rights because they’re not meant to target gun sellers. Read more