As States Reopen, Do They Have Enough Staff To Do Contact Tracing? : Shots


Health investigator Mackenzie Bray of the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City, Utah, contacts people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus so they can get tested and quarantine themselves. Thousands of health workers around the country are doing this work to help keep outbreaks from flaring up.

Rick Bowmer/AP


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Rick Bowmer/AP

Health investigator Mackenzie Bray of the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City, Utah, contacts people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus so they can get tested and quarantine themselves. Thousands of health workers around the country are doing this work to help keep outbreaks from flaring up.

Rick Bowmer/AP

An NPR survey of state health departments shows that the national coronavirus contact tracing workforce has tripled in the past six weeks, from 11,142 workers to 37,110. Yet given their current case counts, only seven states and the District of Columbia are staffed to the level public health researchers say is needed to contain outbreaks.

Contact tracers are public health workers who reach out to each new positive coronavirus case, track down their contacts and connect both the sick person and those who were exposed with the services they need to be able to safely isolate themselves. This is an essential part of stamping out emerging outbreaks.

To understand how that picture had changed since NPR’s initial contact tracing survey in late April, NPR reached out again to all state health departments, as well as Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territories. In total, NPR reporters were able to assemble data from all 50 states along with D.C., Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Many states are still planning to hire more contact tracers, reassign existing government staff or train outside volunteers. Some already have a bank of trained staff or volunteers in waiting, able to pivot to tracing contacts if new positive cases spike. Many of them are relying on the National Guard, AmeriCorps, volunteers or part-time workers to fill these ranks. With the plans to hire and reserve staff, the national workforce grows to 68,525 contact tracers.

“I think it’s amazing that the workforce scale-up has gone this far in such a short period of time,” says Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a lead author of the center’s white paper on contact tracing capacity. “But I’m also — at the same time — concerned, because we’re seeing these increases in case numbers in a lot of different states.”

Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agrees that NPR’s survey shows some progress, but that it’s “not nearly enough and not nearly fast enough.”



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