Mass. partners with nonprofit for ambitious COVID-19 contact tracing initiative

About 200 investigators are already on the job, but the plan calls for deploying at least 1,000 statewide


The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
By Christian M. Wade

A new initiative to track down people who may be at risk for COVID-19 kicked off this week, with the state deploying a small army of virus investigators to blunt the impact of the deadly contagion.

Health officials have teamed up with the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health on the "first-in-the-nation" approach to tracing contacts of coronavirus patients.

Ramped up testing and contact tracing will be essential to get the pandemic under control and reopen economies. Image: Jake May/MLive.com via TNS
Ramped up testing and contact tracing will be essential to get the pandemic under control and reopen economies. Image: Jake May/MLive.com via TNS

The process involves identifying contacts — friends, family and co-workers — of those who test positive, then asking those people to self-quarantine and monitor their health. Epidemiologists say the investigations are crucial to reducing transmission of the virus and preventing health systems from being overloaded.

This week, the program got underway in several North of Boston communities including Methuen and Andover, but the state plans to expand it.

Dr. John Welch, director of operations and partnerships for Partners in Health's COVID-19 response, said the initiative is designed to support local boards of health that already have "boots on the ground" and have been doing contact tracing since the early days of the spread of the coronavirus.

Welch said local health officials are overwhelmed by the scope of the outbreak and the time-consuming practice of tracking people down.

"We get details from test results but some of those files have inaccurate information," he said. "It's takes a lot of digging to find phone numbers and addresses."

Welch, who has worked in Ebola-ravaged regions of Haiti and West Africa, said another challenge is building trust in the communities where they're working.

"We've experienced this everywhere we've worked," he said. "People need to know that the information isn't shared with anyone but public health officials."

The investigators will work from home or remotely to track down people. If they can't get someone by phone, health boards will deploy staff to knock on doors.

About 200 investigators are already on the job, but the plan calls for deploying at least 1,000 statewide.

 

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They haven't had trouble finding people to sign up for the new initiative, with hundreds of thousands out of work from social distancing measures and government shutdowns to curb the spread of the virus. More than 15,000 people applied for the jobs, which pay between $27 and $35 an hour, Welch said.

Anyone identified as a contact of an infected patient by the state's epidemiologists will receive a call from the "MA COVID Team." Federal guidelines say anyone who has been within six feet of a COVID-19-infected person for more than 15 minutes should be notified.

The program gets underway as the state battles a surge of infections, with 34,402 confirmed cases and 1,404 deaths as of 4 p.m. on Friday.

Gov. Charlie Baker said the new program is key to the state's response, along with ramped up testing to get a better handle on how many people are infected.

(c)2020 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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