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

May 8, 2020
Originally published on May 12, 2020 8:15 am

Updated at 10:07 p.m. ET

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.

"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.

On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city has received 7,000 applications for the first round of 1,000 contact tracing jobs. The city's public hospital system, NYC Health + Hospitals, is now overseeing the local program, the mayor said.

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, is among the job applicants.

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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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've heard a lot about how we need contact tracing if we're going to move to the next phase in the coronavirus outbreak. In New York, they are trying to make that happen. Public health officials there are looking to hire as many as 17,000 investigators for what could become one of the largest contact tracing programs for COVID-19. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in New York City.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: After more than two months of COVID-19 ravaging New York and killing around 27,000 people in the state, public health workers are preparing to make a lot of phone calls that start like this.

KELLY HENNING: I'm an official from the Department of Health. I understand that you have a positive test for coronavirus.

HANSI: Dr. Kelly Henning is an epidemiologist who leads a public health program at former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's charitable foundation, which says it's committing more than $10 million to New York state's new contact tracing efforts.

HENNING: You know, if we don't start the contact tracing work, we're going to have to shelter in place for longer periods. And I think that's something that most people are not wanting to do, obviously. And so the idea is to try to open as safely as possible.

HANSI: And to do that, officials with New York state's program say they need to call people who test positive for the coronavirus, if they can get tested, as well as people with whom they're in close contact from two days before symptoms start to show and until the patient is isolated. Close contacts include anyone who, for at least 15 minutes, was within 6 feet of a person who tests positive.

HENNING: If they've been in high-risk locations, like nursing homes or homeless shelters or other places where there's very high risk, it allows public health to really zero in on those locations.

HANSI: The key to contact tracing is to collect information from people who may be infected as soon as possible. That's especially important with the coronavirus because some people who have it don't have symptoms. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says his state's health department is trying to build up an army.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: The estimate, so far, is you need 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people.

HANSI: To start, over the next few weeks, hundreds of contact tracers with the state's program may be deployed to call around New York after they undergo online training that includes a video of actors showing how a contact tracing interview might play out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Since you were around someone who tested positive and there's a possibility that you're positive too, we strongly recommend that you quarantine yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So I'm just back to staying at home alone without going anywhere?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, that's right.

HANSI: New York City is providing free hotel rooms to anyone who tests positive and cannot self-isolate at home for two weeks. Still, contact tracing has raised concerns about privacy. Sarah Braunstein, who is a director with the city's health department, says investigators with the city's own local efforts for COVID-19 would only share limited information with people who may have been in close contact with a person who tests positive.

SARAH BRAUNSTEIN: We would never mention a name. 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.

HANSI: Braunstein says, for now, New York City's contact tracers will not be using smartphones to try to track people's exact locations. They're planning to rely mainly on humans. So far, the city has received 7,000 applications for a thousand contact tracing jobs, including from Shernidane Romelus.

SHERNIDANE ROMELUS: I am a student from Brooklyn College. I am studying health and nutrition science with a concentration on public health.

HANSI: Romelus says she used to make dozens of phone calls a day as a case manager for Haitian immigrant students enrolled in New York City schools. And that, she says, could come in handy.

ROMELUS: The thing is, you have to build trust because sometimes people don't want to share information with you like that. You know what I mean?

HANSI: 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. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.