Wanted In New York: Thousands Of COVID-19 Contact Tracers

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As more states turn to contact tracing as part of their next phase in containing the coronavirus, New York is trying to build what could become one of the largest contact tracing programs for COVID-19 in the United States.

Starting this month, the state is looking to hire as many as 17,000 contact tracers as health departments across New York prepare to launch an investigation more than two months into a pandemic that has killed more than 26,000 people in the state.

Passengers board the Staten Island Ferry in April in New York, where health departments are trying to ramp up contact tracing efforts.

Passengers board the Staten Island Ferry in April in New York, where health departments are trying to ramp up contact tracing efforts.

“If we don’t start the contact tracing work, we have to shelter in place for longer periods. And I think that’s something that most people are not wanting to do, obviously,” says Dr. Kelly Henning, an epidemiologist who leads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ public health program.

The charitable foundation of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg says it’s committing $10.5 million to New York state’s new contact tracing efforts, which will be conducted mainly through phone calls to people who test positive for the coronavirus and to people with whom they’re in close contact.

The key to contact tracing is to collect information, as soon as possible, from people who may be infected. That’s especially important with the coronavirus because some people who have it don’t have symptoms.

But a major challenge facing public health officials is the lack of widespread testing for COVID-19 in the U.S.

Contact tracing efforts have also raised concerns about privacy.

For New York City’s contact tracing program for the coronavirus, the local health department says during hourlong phone calls, investigators would share only limited information with people who get a call because they may have been in close contact with a person who tests positive. Working remotely, contact tracers would be trained to use interview scripts and follow procedures to keep the personal information they’ll enter into an online database confidential.

“We would never mention a name,” says Sarah Braunstein, the director of the city health department’s HIV epidemiology program who is helping to lead the local contact tracing program for the coronavirus. “It would be someone you know — or someone you were in close contact with — tested positive for coronavirus, and you may have been potentially exposed.”

Some countries have been using smartphone apps to try to track people’s exact locations. But in New York, Braunstein says they’re planning to rely mainly on humans for now, and participants would have the option to use an app to report back any changes in symptoms.

So far, the city has received more than 4,000 applications for 1,000 contact tracing jobs, including from Shernidane Romelus, a student at Brooklyn College at The City University of New York who is studying health and nutrition science with a concentration on public health.

Romelus says she has a lot of experience making dozens of phone calls a day as a former case manager for Haitian immigrant students enrolled in New York City’s schools. Her past work, she says, could come in handy.

“The thing is you have to build trust because sometimes people don’t want to share information with you like that,” Romelus says.

For public health officials in New York, though, it’s information they say they’re counting on as they prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus.

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