(TNS) — Virginia knows it needs more contact tracers, those key government workers tasked with alerting people who come in contact with an infected person. The state plans to hire about 1,000 such employees in the coming weeks — more than triple its current workforce — to make sure health officials can try to halt the coronavirus’ spread going forward.
But details on how the state will accomplish this so quickly are still being worked out, even as Virginia approaches its phase one reopening date of May 15.
The hiring spree has not yet started, and officials aren’t ready to provide information on the program’s cost, possible private partnerships or even how they will onboard and train all the new hires.
“We know it’s going to be quite a feat, but we also know how critical it is,” said Marshall Vogt, a senior epidemiologist who is leading this effort. “We know that contact tracing is a really critical part of that reopening phase, so we have that date set in our minds.”
The National Association of County and City Health Officials estimated last month that states need 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people during this pandemic, and half that in nonemergency situations.
Currently, however, Virginia has only about 200 to 300 contact tracers, Norm Oliver, the state’s public health commissioner, said Wednesday at a news conference. That equates to between 2.3 and 3.5 per 100,000 people.
Vogt said they have been “leaning heavily” on volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps, and have reassigned existing staff to do this work.
Virginia isn’t alone in trying to increase its contract tracing workforce. Massachusetts plans to hire another 1,000 contact tracers, and Maryland recently signed a contract to hire 1,000 contact tracers.
Oliver said Virginia decided to embark on the hiring spree after looking at the guidelines put forward by the national health official group and other academic organizations. The effort is being led at the state level, though the contract tracers would work in local health departments.
If successful, the state would have about 1,300 contract tracers, though that could increase in the future, Oliver said.
“Boxing in the spread of the disease is the whole purpose of contact tracing,” he said. “And if we’re not boxing it in, then we need to do more.”
Anna Jeng, a professor at the School of Community and Environmental Health at Old Dominion University, said Virginia and many other states were caught flat-footed on this issue. She said they should have been working to more quickly expand their contract tracing team months ago.
“We wasted two months,” she said. “We really failed on this.”
Virginia’s plan moving forward is to have a “core group” of about 200 to 300 highly trained contact tracers working on case identifications and then another 1,000 who can reach out to each case’s contacts, Oliver said.
Contact tracing is an old-school public health technique, which is also used to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has highlighted its importance. If successfully implemented, the state could isolate people who have the virus before they become contagious.
Based on the type of case, the work can be time- and labor-intensive. If someone tests positive in a nursing home, it can be done quickly. But if an essential worker — say at a grocery store — tests positive, the process of alerting each potential contact can require the work of several staffers, Vogt said. There’s also data input, monitoring contacts and case management, Jeng said.
One way of easing the load for staffers is to use different third-party apps and new technology, which could help with alerting people, Vogt said. He said the state is still looking at a “whole variety of apps and other resources to help with automation.” Among other things, they are evaluating apps developed by Google and Apple.
The technology could be particularly helpful as the state ramps up its testing, adding even more work to the contact tracer’s caseload. The work is especially time-sensitive now, as people who have COVID-19 can be contagious even if they are asymptomatic, Vogt said.
And to keep pace with this extremely contagious disease as the state starts to reopen, Virginia needs to make progress on its hiring very quickly, Jeng said.
“We didn’t prepare. We can only do what we can do now,” she said. “We need to start now. Don’t wait. We have to scale up.”
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.