Health experts call for $46.5 billion to expand contact tracing, isolation

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A group of leading health experts on Monday sent a letter to Congress calling for $46.5 billion to expand contact tracing and isolation of infected people in order to safely reopen the economy. 

“We are writing to propose Congress take swift action in upcoming legislation to give states the funding necessary to scale up our nation’s contact tracing ability and support voluntary self-isolation of infected and exposed individuals,” write the 16 health experts, who include former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Andy Slavitt. “This is fundamental to our ability to begin to reopen our economy while continuing to safeguard American lives.”

The letter asks for $12 billion to hire 180,000 new workers who would conduct contact tracing, meaning interviewing infected people to find out who they have been in contact with and then notifying those people so they can self-isolate for 14 days. The experts say this is important until a vaccine is developed.

While increased testing has been a focal point recently, the experts say that the contact tracing and isolation capacities are key steps as well, and capacity is currently well short of what is needed.

“The existing public health system is currently capable of providing only a fraction of the contact tracing and voluntary self-isolation capacity required to meet the COVID-19 challenge,” the letter states.

An additional $4.5 billion would be used to pay for otherwise-vacant hotels to be used to house infected people who voluntarily choose to isolate themselves there if they are unable to safely isolate at home.

The largest requested sum is for $30 billion to pay people who need financial support while they self-isolate for 14 days. The experts argue these $50 per day payments, which they estimate will be needed by 40 percent of people isolating, will allow people to afford to be able to self-isolate and therefore increase the effectiveness of the public health measure.

The letter calls for the funding to be included in the next coronavirus response bill.

While discussions around that next measure have begun, it is unclear when a deal can be reached, given partisan divides over issues like aid to state and local governments.

The experts who have signed onto the letter come from both sides of the aisle.

Gottlieb served under President Trump and Slavitt under President Obama. Additional signers include former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); Mark McClellan, who was head of FDA and CMS under President George W. Bush; Atul Gawande, a prominent health expert and CEO of a joint health venture from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase; and Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The letter notes that Congress provided $25 billion for testing in its most recent coronavirus measure, some of which can also be used for contact tracing.

“We believe the next step is to complement that investment with the additional support required to allow states to track and isolate infected populations, which will be a vital part of safely reopening the economy,” the experts write.

Proposals on contact tracing have also come from Congress.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have proposed legislation to provide $55 billion per year for a new Health Force to hire hundreds of thousands of workers to do contact tracing and other health tasks to fight coronavirus.

–Updated at 8:39 a.m.

Tags Contact tracing Coronavirus Donald Trump funding Isolation Kirsten Gillibrand Michael Bennet testing
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