New Jobs Beckon in Philadelphia COVID-19 Contact Tracing

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BY TONY WEST
A new line of work is about to take root in Philadelphia: COVID-19 contact tracing.

As Philadelphia moves into the yellow phase of lockdown, reopening restaurants and other businesses, public-health officials are preparing to deal with a potential surge in new infections with a tool they wish they had had in early March: an army of contact tracers.

Countries that have demonstrated better pandemic control than the United States have proven that rigorous contact tracing is key to managing the disease. The goal is to keep the transmission rate at a ratio of 1:1 or lower; that is, one infected person must get a chance to pass their illness on to no more than one other person. The sooner we find whom the positive person has had close contact with, the faster we can jump on that spread and contain it.

The Philadelphia Department is developing a new contact-tracing department from scratch, said James Garrow, department spokesperson. Within a few weeks, it should start to hire new tracers and spring them into action.

The department is working from the top down. “When you plan to open a new store, you don’t hire the cashiers first,” said Garrow. “A lot of work is going into building databases, designing security and the like.”

At present, methodical contact tracing is simply impossible. Philadelphia’s dense population has ensured a high rate of transmission: as of June 16, 1 in 64 city residents have tested positive. We know more undetected transmitters are out there. Although new cases are falling in Philadelphia, they far outstrip the numbers of staff available anywhere in the health-care system to do this work. But as test availability grows, hospital loads drop and vulnerable people learn how to self-quarantine with more ease, the Health Department expects to be able to gear up enough tracers to handle every new identified case.

“We plan to hire two tracers per one new case,” said Garrow. That’s a high ratio because we live in a denser city, so the number of potential contacts is higher.

What will be expected of these new workers?

Some college experience is desired. But the most-important thing is great interpersonal skills, Garrow stressed.

“The job will involve calling folks up and gaining their trust,” he explained. “A tracer must be empathetic, informative and trustworthy.”

Most tracing can be done remotely. The department plans to handle most contacts online or by telephone. As soon as a new positive person is identified, a tracer will receive a list of potentially exposed people with contact information. “A basic script will run along this line: ‘You may have been exposed, so you should quarantine,’ Garrow said. “During those days, we’ll have an outreach person to check in with the quarantined person. It could be as simple as a daily text.”

In medicine, protecting the confidentiality of individual health data is paramount. Tracers may not be allowed even to know the identity of the infected person whose tracks they are following. “This is protected information,” said Garrow. “We really want to make sure we get this right.”

Many Philadelphians have participated in demonstrations since May 30; at many of these, social distancing was, to say the least, shaky. How to evaluate them?

“Contact tracing with people you don’t know makes things more difficult,” Garrow admitted. “But none of the data that we collect for contact tracing is shared with law enforcement.”

People who interested in applying for a contact-tracer position can visit the City’s COVID-19 website, https://www.phila.gov/programs/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/. There they can click on the “Get Involved” button.

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