COVID-19

WANTED: COVID-19 DETECTIVES

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By Barrett Seaman

The seventh of the seven criteria Governor Andrew Cuomo is requiring of each of the state’s ten regions before they can begin to re-open calls for them to have 30 contact tracers for each 100,000 in population “or based on their infection rate.” For the state as a whole, that means hiring and training up to 17,000, depending on how many people are infected.

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For Westchester County, that would mean a battalion of some 300 tracers, whose job would be to contact people who have contracted the virus and then work back to see whom that person had come in contact with during the prior two weeks. They must then persuade those persons to self-quarantine and provide them with whatever services they might need during the two weeks they would need to remain isolated.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how difficult, and possibly dangerous, such a job could be. If the infected person had been at home for the entire two weeks, coming in contact only with a spouse, the trail may not go back very far and the tracer’s task simple. But if the infected person had been wandering around a supermarket or taking public transportation, coming in contact for just a few seconds with strangers, the trail gets murky, complicated and maybe impenetrable.

But if the tracing is complete, and if those possibly affected are easily found and cooperative in entering into quarantine, a tracer’s work could be enormously effective in interrupting the chain of infection and snuffing out a potential flare-up. Combined with widespread testing, it is arguably the only non-medical way to stop the pandemic.

The conundrum for individual counties like Westchester, or regions like the Mid-Hudson to which Westchester’s fate is bound, is that the job of recruiting and training this army of tracers is in the hands of the state Department of Health and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Perhaps that is why the state’s Regional Monitoring Dashboard, which keeps a running score of how each of the ten regions is doing in its efforts to qualify for re-opening, has been grading this last criterion lightly. As of May 15, five of the regions had qualified while the other five were described as “expected” to meet the standard.

Publicizing the recruiting effort is taking place largely via email and online invitations to sign up, which can be done only on a state website. After the kickoff event at which former Mayor Mike Bloomberg appeared via Zoom with the governor to announce that his Bloomberg Philanthropies would donate the $10 million or more it will take to raise this army, most of the effort has come through mentions by Cuomo, Latimer and other elected officials during briefings, or in e-blasts, such as those sent out locally by county legislator Mary Jane Shimsky.

With so many out of work, the call for applicants should easily be met, but not everyone will qualify. A basic tracer is expected to work at least 20 hours a week and be able to:

  • Work in collaboration with the Case Investigator from the local health department (LHD).
  • Call contacts of newly diagnosed cases.
  • Communicate with contacts in a professional and empathetic manner maintaining emotional and cultural awareness.
  • Collect and record information on symptoms and needs into the CRM (Client Resource Management) with accuracy.
  • Provide contacts with approved information about NYS isolation and quarantine procedures, and if appropriate, refer them to testing according to protocol and/or to a COVID-19 Community Support Specialist for social resources.
  • Follow a set script to inform contacts about the importance of isolation or quarantine and what to do if symptoms are present or develop.
  • Maintain daily contact with the Team Supervisor.
  • The position is considered temporary with a one-year engagement expected and the possibility to extend as needed.
  • The contact center will operate 7 days a week between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Evening and/or weekend work may be required.

The pay is $27.00-an-hour. There are two other positions available: Community Support Specialist, which could be described as a logistics officer who provides the support systems required by tracers, including arranging for testing, finding quarantine housing and dealing with outside agencies. Each specialist will be assigned to a team of 20 tracers. The job requires, among other things, a bachelor’s degree, at least one year’s experience in social/human services and requisite computer skills.

Each team of 20- tracers plus a Community Support Specialist will be led by a Team Supervisor—the boss, with all the requirements that implies. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, Supervisors ideally have “experience in clinical medicine and/or public health,” including a license. The pay offered is $45-per-hour. Only about a dozen would be needed in Westchester. For full details on requirements for each position, go to: at https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/get-involved-how-you-can-help.

A spokesperson from the governor’s office noted that “while public health or clinical background is preferred, contact tracers can come from any background as long as they meet the hiring criteria.”

Once accepted, tracers must undergo a five-hour training session taught by staffers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health. According to the governor’s office, some 2,000 are already going through the program, out of an applicant pool so far of more than 30,000. They hope to start deploying May 15, the stated end-date for PAUSE statewide.

 

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