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States Need to Hire More COVID-19 Contact Tracers

Currently, the country has hired just a fraction of the contact tracers needed to contain the spread of the coronavirus and help the economy return to life. Experts say a national workforce is needed.

Healthcare workers collect a virus sample to test in Manchester, Conn. The state has launched a new contact tracing program. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)
Shelter-in-place orders, business closures and significant drops in tax revenue, have disrupted public sector employment, resulting in furloughs and layoffs for thousands of state and local government employees. But openings for one job in particular could boost government hiring while helping the country return to normal: contact tracer.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials estimates that the country will need at least 100,000 for the job. According to NPR, the contact tracing workforce needs to increase by 180,000 until a vaccine is on the market. A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put the number of tracers required at 300,000. This workforce is necessary for the time-intensive work of finding out who those with COVID-19 have been in close contact with, finding those people, and then checking their health status.

So far, however, the number of contact tracers at work nationally is far below projected numbers and hiring remains slow. In late April, NPR surveyed all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to ask them about their contact tracing workforce. That survey showed that states had, or planned to have, around 36,000 workers.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he’d like to see 20,000 contact tracers trained and on the job in the state. New York state announced that it wants to hire 17,000. Virginia plans to hire about 1,000 such employees in the coming weeks. Right now, it has between 200 and 300 contact workers, according to Norm Oliver, Virginia’s public health commissioner ,which equates to between 2.3 and 3.5 per 100,000 people. 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. 

Meanwhile, job seekers have noticed the uptick in openings. "The share of postings that mention terms like ‘contact tracer’ has surged to over 20 times its level at the beginning of the year,” says Nick Bunker, economic research director at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “The share of postings that mention terms like ‘contact tracer’ has surged to nearly 15 times its level at the beginning of February." 

"Until Feb. 7, there were no searches for contact tracing terms,” says Bunker. “But as of May 7, searches for those terms are at 124 searches per million, peaking at 135 per million on April 22." 

In Massachusetts roughly 9,000 people applied for 1,000 contact tracer positions in the first 24 hours, and the job pays the rate of a federal census worker, $20 to 25 an hour, according to ABC News. Currently, the state has approximately 2,000 tracers at work.

So far, The CDC has sent $631 million to state and local health departments to increase their capacity to do contact tracing and testing for the novel coronavirus — a fraction of what many officials say they need to safely restart their economies. A bipartisan group of public health officials has requested Congress to spend $12 billion for a contact tracing workforce.

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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