How Contact Tracing Has Changed Since COVID-19 : NPR

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Contact tracing reworked in 2020 from a routine a part of public well being work to an enormous effort to include COVID-19. Consultants from the CDC and public well being departments replicate on classes realized.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This is one signal the pandemic is on the decline. NPR’s newest survey of state well being departments with the Johns Hopkins Heart for Well being Safety finds many are winding down their contact tracing packages. That is NPR’s sixth contact tracing survey because the pandemic started. After the most important scale-up of contact tracing in U.S. historical past, how did it go and what’s subsequent? NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin has this report.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: There have been tantalizing tales early on within the pandemic about how Singapore and South Korea had contained the novel coronavirus by monitoring down each optimistic case, determining their contacts and rapidly getting these folks to quarantine. On the time, the U.S. had solely about 11,000 contact tracers in line with NPR’s first survey, which clearly wasn’t sufficient to do one thing like that in a rustic this massive. Public well being consultants informed Congress they wanted to extend the workforce tenfold or extra. Then, CDC director Robert Redfield informed NPR in April of 2020 this was a significant precedence.

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ROBERT REDFIELD: We’re going to want a considerable enlargement of public well being subject employees, and it’s going to be vital.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Over the course of 2020, as NPR and the Johns Hopkins Heart for Well being Safety surveyed state well being departments, the contact tracing workforce grew month by month to a peak of over 70,000 in December. Wanting again, CDC’s Melanie Taylor says it is clear that ramp-up wasn’t sufficient to match the winter surge.

MELANIE TAYLOR: We nonetheless didn’t have sufficient folks to reply and ship case investigation and call tracing throughout these surge months.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One purpose the U.S. was not capable of deliver on sufficient contact tracers…

ADRIANE CASALOTTI: You were not simply ranging from zero, you have been ranging from a deficit when it got here to the workforce and public well being departments.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That is Adriane Casalotti of the Nationwide Affiliation of County and Metropolis Well being Officers. And so they have been scaling up within the late spring and summer season whereas communities have been beginning to reopen.

CASALOTTI: In all probability too far to say we set it as much as fail, however we definitely did not set it up for fulfillment.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In these early weeks and months, no nationwide military of contact tracers materialized, as CDC Director Redfield envisioned, to fulfill this want. As a substitute, it was a hodgepodge. Some well being departments created statewide packages. Others left it to native departments or volunteers or contracted name facilities. Katherine Feldman runs the contact tracing program in Maryland. She says discovering folks to rent was solely a part of the problem.

KATHERINE FELDMAN: You understand, contact tracing is also a talented job. And it takes a minute to recruit certified workers and practice them up and get them going.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says tracers additionally may solely work part-time or depart. It is intense work calling folks all day, listening to folks’s tales of sickness and loss. Now, NPR’s newest survey finds well being departments are beginning to scale these packages again. Greater than half of respondents have fewer contact tracers than final winter, and the overwhelming majority aren’t planning to rent extra.

Crystal Watson is a senior scholar on the Heart for Well being Safety who collaborated with NPR on the surveys. She notes most departments did reply, nonetheless, that that is nonetheless a vital a part of the response. That is good, she says, as a result of now is definitely a time when contact tracing might maintain the virus in verify.

CRYSTAL WATSON: Actually looking for each case that we will and hint all their contacts who’re unvaccinated particularly.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Even so, Nicole Roberts, who runs the contact tracing program in Utah, says they’re having to maneuver workers round.

NICOLE ROBERTS: Circumstances dropped fairly drastically. And so then, we had a ton of individuals, and we have been questioning what to do with everybody.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Some tracers have been serving to with cell testing groups or vaccine clinics, she says. On the similar time, there’s lastly an enormous pot of cash on the desk. President Biden’s COVID reduction invoice, handed in March, consists of $7.4 billion for the general public well being workforce. Within the survey, most departments did not have clear plans for methods to use that funding. That features Utah, says Roberts.

ROBERTS: Proper now, we’re simply being inundated with a lot funding that it is, you realize, virtually such as you’re scrambling making an attempt to determine what all to apply it to.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There is a concern that that is one-time funding. It is normally feast or famine with public well being funding, Roberts says. Proper now, it is a feast, however…

ROBERTS: You understand, just a few years from now, we may be hitting famine, the place we have constructed all of those packages, and we now have all of this capability. After which the funding will dry up as a result of, you realize, pandemic response is now not horny (laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Watson of Johns Hopkins and different public well being consultants are hoping the U.S. will break this cycle.

WATSON: So it has to transcend how will we maintain this particular workforce who’re very targeted on contact tracing, and the way will we be sure that we now have the workforce we have to do higher public well being each day.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Doing restaurant inspections and rabies management and HIV outreach, who can pivot to contact tracing when there’s an emergency. She says that approach, within the subsequent pandemic, the U.S. will not should construct the contact tracing airplane whereas flying it.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR Information.

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