If you’ve ventured out to a restaurant in recent months, they might have asked for your phone number and email address as a precautionary measure in case you or someone else later tests positive for COVID-19. At its core, this is contact tracing.

Contact tracing, along with testing, is an incredibly crucial part of the public health strategy for combating the coronavirus pandemic, but in order to effectively institute it for the entire country, the United States needs a robust workforce. In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Congress the United States needs as many as 100,000 contact tracers to fight the pandemic.

The latest survey by NPR, however, counted less than half of that from 45 states and Washington, D.C. The total is likely higher, as some states did not respond and others excluded county and local staff, but the survey also found that the workforce had only grown from 37,110 in mid-June to 41,122.


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“We've only gotten halfway to our national goal for the amount of personnel we should have in place," Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, told NPR. "One-hundred thousand [contact tracers] is the baseline the country needs and should always have going forward — forever. COVID or no COVID."

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., are the only palces with enough workers to investigate their coronavirus cases, according to an NPR analysis using George Washington University’s contact tracing workforce estimator — although Michigan, Montana and Hawaii have enough if reserve staff numbers are included.

With no national guidance on contact tracing policies, its effectiveness has varied widely from state to state. In Michigan, contact tracers are only getting a hold of positive COVID-19 cases 60 percent of the time, falling far short of its 98 percent goal, The Hill reported in June. Louisiana contact tracers are doing worse, as positive cases are being reached successfully only 48 percent of the time. In Colorado, however, contact tracers successfully reached 78 percent of positive cases through May 15.


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"Increasing case counts and turn around times are hindering our ability to slow the spread through contact tracing," Jane Yackley of the Tennessee Department of Health, wrote in response to NPR's survey, which found Tennessee would need seven times more contact tracers to keep up with the current amount of transmission.

Contact tracers are also facing difficulties getting people to answer in the age of robocalls and caller identification. Even when they do pick up, not everyone is able to identify where they were exposed and who else they might have exposed, and some are skeptical of the efforts.

"I'm the bearer of bad news, I understand that. But I want to make sure another funeral does not happen," Kelsey Green, a contact tracer in Maryland, told the Hill.


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Published on Aug 07, 2020