Contact tracers: what they do & how they can contain the virus

New York reports first coronavirus-related death in state
Posted at 6:02 PM, Apr 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-01 07:09:05-04

BALTIMORE (WMAR) — Contact tracing: according to Johns Hopkins experts, it's the best tool we have to manage and stop the spread of COVID-19.

"The whole point of contact tracing is to limit the contact of infectious people with others in the community so we can stop transmission chains," said Dr. Emily Gurley, an Associate Scientist for Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health.

It's not a new job. Before the pandemic, contact tracers were working in local health departments to track HIV, Tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases, but because COVID-19 spreads much more quickly, experts said there needs to be more people doing this work.

"We need to dramatically scale up contact tracing for the nation," said Dr. Crystal Watson, a Senior Scholar with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Watson estimated that before the pandemic, there were 2,200 contact tracers in state health departments and she thinks they have identified about 30,000 potential contact tracers in states across the country, with the goal being 100,000 contact tracers nationwide to combat this pandemic.

Gurley said above all, contact tracers need to be good at talking to people. Their job is to reach out to COVID-19 patients, ask them to isolate and make sure they have all the resources they need. Then they will figure out who the patients have been in contact with.

"It can take time to walk through with a case, where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing. Also to identify phone numbers or other contact information for people who might be exposed," said Gurley. "People who’ve been infected can be infectious and infect people 2-3 days before they ever know themselves so it’s very important that we find contacts and ask them to limit their contact with other people."

Then the contact tracer follows the chain of transmission, letting people know they've been exposed and asking them to take proper precautions to stop the spread.

Experts said while there will be an increase in these jobs, it's something everyone should be involved in as the state moves towards reopening.

"Case identification and contact tracing really will allow us to get back to a little more sense of normalcy in the near future so the more we can help each other and help public health do this contact tracing, the better off we are all going to be in the long run with this virus," said Watson.

In addition to good people skills, Gurley said contact tracers need to know the basics about COVID-19, which are covering in new training courses being developed.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School has been working with New York's governor and Bloomberg Philanthropies to build its own online curriculum for training contact tracers.