Doctors say communities need contact tracers for successful recovery

Reporter: Veronica Marshall
Published: Updated:
Cropped Photo: U.S. Medical workers assisting in COVID-19 response: 4/15/2020. Army National Guard / Robert Lannom Jr. / CC BY 2.0

Parts of Florida are opening up again. Over the weekend, crowds gathered on the beach in Jacksonville – most not social distancing.

And as more of the country opens up, medical experts say we need to have contact tracing teams in place, but there aren’t enough.

Dr. Joshua Michaud, Ph.D., is the associate director of global health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation.

He says, “What we all want to get to is a point where we feel safe going out into our communities again, and opening up those communities again. Contact tracing is going to be an important part of that.”

But Michaud adds there’s a problem with that plan. Across the country, there’s a shortage of contact tracers. He said, “The last estimates that I’ve seen as to the number of contact tracers that we have nationwide is around 2,200… And some of the targets that we have for contact tracing say that we need maybe 100,000 nationwide.”

So we checked in with Florida health leaders.

The state’s Department of Health says to combat the coronavirus it added 100 epidemiologists to its team in March.

In Collier County, DOH employees have been cross-trained to join their contact tracing team.

New hires also helped to take that team from four members up to 19.

In Lee County, 37 Department of Health staff members have been reassigned to the epidemiology unit, along with another three epidemiologists sent to Lee County from Tallahassee.

Michaud says the number of contact tracers a community needs is based on how many cases it has and the amount of spread it’s seeing. But if communities need more contact tracers, there’s a ready, willing, and waiting workforce.

“There’s a large pool of people who could be drawn into this work and it doesn’t take that much training to get them up to speed,” Dr. Michaud explained. “And they don’t require specialized medical knowledge, so it’s certainly doable. It’s a matter of wanting to do it and then actually doing it.”

Michaud says Massachusetts created a program to hire people to act as tracers. They are now training 1,000 people.


What is contact tracing and why is it important?

People in close contact with someone who is infected with a virus, such as the Ebola virus, are at higher risk of becoming infected themselves, and of potentially further infecting others.

Closely watching these contacts after exposure to an infected person will help the contacts to get care and treatment, and will prevent further transmission of the virus.

This monitoring process is called contact tracing, which can be broken down into 3 basic steps:

Contact identification: Once someone is confirmed as infected with a virus, contacts are identified by asking about the person’s activities and the activities and roles of the people around them since onset of illness. Contacts can be anyone who has been in contact with an infected person: family members, work colleagues, friends, or health care providers.

Contact listing: All persons considered to have contact with the infected person should be listed as contacts. Efforts should be made to identify every listed contact and to inform them of their contact status, what it means, the actions that will follow, and the importance of receiving early care if they develop symptoms. Contacts should also be provided with information about prevention of the disease. In some cases, quarantine or isolation is required for high risk contacts, either at home, or in hospital.

Contact follow-up: Regular follow-up should be conducted with all contacts to monitor for symptoms and test for signs of infection.

*Source World Health Organization.

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