Contact tracers are key to reopening and VDH needs 1,000 of them

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Health officials say testing, tracking and isolating new cases of COVID-19 is critical for reopening the country safely. That process is called contact tracing and the Virginia Department of Health is looking to hire about one thousand people to help. 

Contact tracing–often used to track tuberculosis or sexually transmitted diseases–isn’t new to public health but some argue it has never been more important. In the coming days, VDH is looking to set up the largest scale operation the state has ever seen. 

Marshall Vogt, a senior epidemiologist leading VDH’s contact-tracing effort, said in an interview on Tuesday that the state has yet to hire any of the one thousand people needed to supplement local health departments who’re already doing this work.

“It’s a Herculean effort for sure and we’re well aware of that,” Vogt said. “I don’t think we’re behind because we have not gotten to the point yet where we’ve really started the reopening process. We know that’s right around the corner so I think we’re right on track.” 

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Vogt said contract tracers will be reaching out to potential and positive COVID-19 cases to track down where they’ve been and who they’ve seen in the two weeks prior to that conversation. Ideally, those contacts can be isolated before they become contagious. 

Overall, Vogt said people have been compliant with the contact tracing process so far. He said VDH does have the authority to order people to isolate themselves if they refuse to do so voluntarily. 

Some states have set educational and professional requirements for contact tracers. Vogt said VDH has not but they’re confident they can train people to do the job.

“You don’t necessarily need a background in public health or science. What you need to be able to do is think critically and connect with people,” Vogt said. “Some of these contacts may know someone who just passed away from COVID-19 so we want to give them [contact tracers] the skills they need to be empathetic.” 

Vogt said applicants will be vetted. If approved, they’ll be educated about COVID-19 and trained on patient privacy policies before starting the job. 

“When we reach out to contacts, of course we try to maintain their confidentiality because we understand there is a stigma with any kind of illness potentially and we don’t want that to hinder anybody’s willingness to share information with us and to do the right thing and quarantine themselves,” Vogt said. 

Vogt said contact tracing could be a good option for people who are out of work due to the coronavirus. He said the majority of these people should be able to work from home as long as they have a laptop and a cell phone. 

As some states have adopted the use of apps, Vogt said VDH is still evaluating different technology platforms to streamline information. 

Vogt said VDH should be posting an application for the positions in the coming days. He said they’ve yet to settle on a salary for contact-tracers, though he said some could be volunteers from Virginia’s Medical Reserve Corps. 

“We’re definitely going to try to make the salary attractive so that we’re able to attract and retain a workforce because this is not something that’s just going to go on for a couple of weeks, this is going to go on for a few months or more,” Vogt said. 

Meanwhile, a company based in Northern Virginia has already started the recruiting process to support governments across the country. AM LLC CEO Dan Gabriel said more than a dozen state and county health authorities have expressed interest in using the service.

Gabriel said they’ve received more than 20,000 applications, including thousands of Virginia residents. Gabriel said they’ve reached out to VDH and they’re hoping to connect with them as soon as this week.

Unlike VDH, Gabriel said his company is specifically recruiting people with a college degree. They’re also asking applicants to undergo a background screening and complete an online training program on patient privacy that’s about seven hours long. 

Gabriel said they have the capability to develop an app but it’s up to the state to decide if they want that. 

As for salaries, Gabriel said that’s up to the states too. He said pay is ranging from $17 to $23 dollars an hour nationwide for contact tracers.

Asked if Virginia is behind other states in ramping up their workforce, Gabriel said, “We’re all behind, nobody anticipated this pandemic. What we’re trying to do is get ahead of the curve to support Virginia and cities and towns across the state so when they’re ready we’ll be here.”

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