DC, Maryland and Virginia Employ Contact Tracers to Slow Spread of COVID-19; Are You Right for the Job?

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As D.C., Maryland and Virginia continue through the phases of reopening, one key element to help make us safer is contact tracing. Each health department is hiring hundreds of people and training them to do the job. Is it right for you?

More than 400,000 people have already signed up for a free online course offered by Johns Hopkins University to learn how to become a contact tracer. It doesn't guarantee you'll get one of the hundreds of open jobs, but you'll learn a lot about COVID-19 and how to keep it from spreading.

The first lesson of contact tracing is how to make contact — to alert people who've been exposed to someone with COVID-19. It's a phone call that could save their life or that of a family member or friend. 

"It's pretty important to move fast. I would say within about 24 hours of identifying a contact, we want to be in contact with them," said Marshall Vogt, a senior epidemiologist with Virginia's Department of Health.

Contact tracers ask about symptoms or if the person needs anything. They have to convince the contact to quarantine for 14 days, even if he or she feels fine. The tracer then finds out who else the contact has been near, so those people can be contacted as well.

"We need people to be very transparent with us with all of the activities that they are participating in, so we can identify sources of exposure," said Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of D.C.'s Department of Health. 

In a news conference Wednesday, Nesbitt said the District was initially focused on high priority cases. According to the D.C. Reopening Tracker website, D.C. has not yet achieved its goal of reaching 90% of infected patients within 24 hours.


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"But now that we are reaching out to all new positive cases, a lot more leg work had to be done," Nesbitt said.

With 200 contact tracers already working, and another 100 in training now, D.C. did hit that 90% mark a few days this week.

Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia

COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia

Source: DC, MD and VA Health Departments
Credit: Anisa Holmes / NBC Washington

"So now we're in a much better position moving forward," said Nesbitt.

Maryland started months earlier, contracting with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in April to hire and train more than 1,400 case investigators and contact tracers statewide. They made more than 25,0000 calls in the first two weeks of June.

Contact tracers all go through training to learn about the virus itself, signs and symptoms, risk factors, and when a person is infectious. They're also taught how to ask the right questions, build trust and about the ethics involved.

"It's all going to be confidential," said Vogt. "We're not going to say, 'You were a contact of this individual.'"

Virginia hopes to fill all of its 1,200 positions by July, mainly with local workers from each community.

"I think we're right where we need to be," said Vogt. "Because we had those staff at the local health departments that were able to jump in and help."

Contact tracers don't have to have public health experience, just a willingness to help and ability to build a rapport with strangers. Cases often require staying in touch with the contacts for the duration of their two-week quarantine.

"We're looking for people that are energetic and enthusiastic, and a lot of our applicants have kind of done some homework before coming to us," Vogt said. 

The hiring requirements vary from place to place. You do have to pass a background check, and some require a high school diploma.

Virginia is also looking at utilizing smart phone technology to alert citizens if their phone was in close proximity to someone who was infected in a public location, like at a grocery store or on a bus. That system would be voluntarily and only used to people who sign up to be part of it.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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