Reopening Means Contact Tracing. Many States Aren’t Ready.

By: and - April 29, 2020 12:00 am

A medical worker walks past people lined up at Gotham Health East New York, a COVID-19 testing center in Brooklyn. New York and other states are trying to hire and train armies of contact tracers, using an approach often used to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press

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In mid-March, Jenine Clements’ boss asked her to set aside at least 24 hours out of her work week to call people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. The goal was to locate people who had been in close contact with an infected patient and make sure they quarantined for two weeks to stop the spread.

Clements, 41, is a disease investigation specialist for the Washtenaw County Health Department in Michigan and, for more than 17 years, she’s made similar calls to people who test positive for other diseases, including HIV, syphilis and hepatitis C.

Making the extra calls to COVID-19 patients meant Clements had to work evenings and weekends. But she said she’s happy to do it. If people don’t answer at first, she calls back up to three times. She said it helps that the state issued a public notice last week asking everyone to answer calls from the health department.

“The fear level is pretty high right now,” Clements said. “With so many people in quarantine away from their families, lots of people just want to talk with someone.”

Nationwide, contact tracing — which Clements and more than 2,000 other public health workers across the country perform on a regular basis — is the key to reopening businesses and resuming some form of normal life as the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside, epidemiologists say.

But with no national plan and scant federal dollars on the horizon, states are funding their own initiatives for what experts predict will be a massive undertaking lasting 18 months to two years, until a vaccine is developed.

The result will be a national patchwork of contact tracing teams, with some more effective than others.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.

Michael Ollove

Michael Ollove covers health care for Stateline. Ollove worked for many years at The Baltimore Sun, as an enterprise reporter and an editor.