But if Washington starts to see worrying spikes as businesses reopen, it has a ready resource to draw from. More than 2,500 people have already volunteered to be contact tracers, and the state is in the process of screening and training them through an online bootcamp. “We recognize that we may see an increase in cases in the coming weeks and months,” says Reynolds. “That’s why we have a robust pool of folks that are trained so we can activate them as needed going forward.”
How many contact tracers each state will need depends on its population, the size of its outbreak, and the sorts of social distancing measures it has in place. But according to a recent statement from the National Association of County and City Health Officials, states should plan on having 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents during a pandemic. The group has produced a workforce calculator to help local health agencies figure out how many tracers they need to hire.
In a letter to Congress last month, first obtained by National Public Radio, two former federal health officials estimated that until a vaccine becomes available, the US workforce needs to increase by 180,000 contact tracers. Andy Slavitt, the former director of Medicare and Medicaid during the Obama administration; and Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump, asked lawmakers for $12 billion to pay for these workers’ training and salaries. They also projected that another $30 billion would be necessary to provide a daily stipend to people voluntarily self-isolating.
A huge part of contact tracing is helping people figure out how to safely stay at home for weeks at a time, and it was this aspect of the job that I found most surprising during my whirlwind education. “Contact tracers are detectives, investigators, social workers, and therapists,” Gurley told me and my virtual classmates. “Creativity and problem-solving are essential.” For example: What do you do if a person is too sick to talk? Or if you don’t speak the same language? What if they live with an abuser, or lots of roommates? What if they can’t work from home and are worried they’ll lose their job if they don’t show up? What if they’re scared, angry, or depressed?
I expected to learn how to calculate infectious periods and draw complicated maps of contagion clusters—and the Johns Hopkins course did cover all of that. But it also revealed how much of the job is about helping others make sense of a confusing time, building relationships with people, and encouraging them to keep their communities safe. Contact tracers might be working the phones from home, but they really are on the front lines.
If you’re interested in becoming a contact tracer for your area, or just want to know more about the process, you can take the Johns Hopkins course here. In addition to New York, California, and Washington, hiring initiatives are underway in many other states. Massachusetts recently announced plans to recruit 1,000 contact tracers, and Georgia is currently advertising openings for positions that pay $15 per hour. Other states, like Michigan and Florida, are relying on cadres of unpaid volunteers.
During a time of record unemployment, it struck me that this is a job that people can do from home, that connects them to others, and does good for their communities. And maybe it will help some of us feel less trapped and hopeless, too.
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