US States Hiring Thousands Of 'Contact Tracers' As Unemployment Rate Skyrockets

As U.S. unemployment soars to historic levels, a number of states around the country are hiring 'contact tracers' to help identify infected individuals and track down who they may have exposed to the virus.

A staggering 29 million Americans lost their livelihoods in April as the spreading coronavirus shuttered stores, factories and offices, canceled events, and brought transit around the country to a sudden stop.

Payrolls fell by 20.5 million last month, leaving 23 million unemployed, the country's Labor Department said Friday.

Another 6.6 million Americans left the workforce altogether, meaning they were neither employed nor looking for work. The nation's unemployment rate more than tripled, soaring to 14.7 percent from 4.4 percent in March -- the highest since the Great Depression.

America's unemployment hit a staggering 14.7 percent. Image: AAP/ EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

The sheer scale of economic destruction --  which wiped out a decade's worth of job gains in a matter of weeks --  defies historical comparison.

Prior to April, the largest one-month hit to payrolls was in September of 1945, when 1.9 million jobs were lost as the country demobilized from World War II.

In March of 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, 800,000 jobs were lost in a single month.



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States Hiring 'Contact Tracers'

Containing the coronavirus as the economy gradually reopens has created an urgent need for hundreds of thousands of people trained to identify infected individuals and track down anyone and everyone they could have exposed to the virus.

In the absence of a federal plan, some city and state health departments are already seeking to fill thousands of these positions. Experts estimate that between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers --  who can earn up to US$65,000 per year --  will be needed nationwide based on state populations and projected COVID-19 infection rates.

"I do think that it's a fantastic job for people who have been furloughed, and it's something that people can be trained to do," Roger Shapiro, a professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health said.

It takes some training, but it's not impossible to train almost anybody with reasonable social skills, who can work off a script, begin a conversation with people, convey a few key messages and collect data.

Shapiro expects demand for contact tracers to jump as businesses start to reopen and Americans resume ordinary activities, which public health experts warn could cause virus infections to flare.

"It's wonderful to have a growth industry right now given the state of the economy," he said.

How Does The Role Work?

Contact tracers identify infected individuals based on test results, obtained by city and state health departments. Then they contact people --  initially by phone, in most cases --  who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Tracers will ask them to recall the names of everyone with whom they have recently come into contact. Finally, contact tracers will warn those people of their potential exposure, advise them to self-quarantine and provide them with access to resources they might need in order to follow protocol.

The containment method is most effective at disrupting transmission when an infected person's contacts are immediately notified that they have been exposed.

Protesters in vehicles demand reopening of the state during a rally in Philadelphia on May 8, 2020. Image: AAP/Bastiaan Slabbers/Sipa USA.

But according to Christiana Coyle, a professor at NYU School of Global Public Health and formerly a contact tracer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- getting test results quickly is paramount.

"If there is a three-day lag between the test and results, depending on where that person goes, hundreds of people could be exposed — versus if a person is tested and gets the results 15 minutes later, they can begin taking precautions immediately," she said.

"When you don't receive results for a couple of days, the value of testing is greatly diminished if they can't be turned around quickly, for the purposes of contact tracing."

Among the initiatives to hire contact tracers now underway:

  • In New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo last week announced that the state will hire up to 17,000 tracers as part of a reopening strategy in coordination with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Johns Hopkins University.
  • New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has partnered with the Fund for Public Health in New York City to hire its own corps of contact tracers.
  • In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has said he wants 10,000 contact tracers investigating webs of transmission throughout the state.
  • Massachusetts recently announced plans to recruit 1,000 individuals to conduct contact tracing activities, in concert with Boston nonprofit Partners in Health. Its job description cites the need for "excellent interpersonal skills" and "the ability to interact professionally with culturally diverse individuals during a time of crisis and distress."
  • The Georgia Department of Public Health is also advertising openings for contact trainers, who can expect to earn up to US$15 per hour for their work. Minimum qualifications include a high school diploma, excellent interpersonal skills and more.
  • Washington State Governor Jay Inslee last month said he expected roughly 1,500 contact tracers to be working in the state by mid-May.