7 On Your Side Investigates contact tracing and how it works

NEW YORK (WABC) -- New York City has hired more than half of the contract tracers the city will need to begin reopening, Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a press conference Tuesday.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered regions to hire 30 contract tracers for every 100,000 people.

According to de Blasio, the city has hired over 1,700 tracers and expects to have the roughly 2,500 tracers needed within the first two weeks of June.

"This is a huge new piece of the puzzle," de Blasio said. "This is when we go on the offensive and put into place something that really changes our whole fight against the coronavirus."

Contact tracers identify individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and reach out to them to determine who those individuals had close contact with during the time they could have been contagious. A contract tracer will then reach out to all of those individuals who had contact with a sick individual to let them know they could have been exposed.

A course designed to train contact tracers, offered by Johns Hopkins University, describes a close contact as someone within six feet of a sick individual for 15 minutes or more.

The course describes prompt contact tracing as important to limit the spread of disease. The sooner a tracer can notify individuals potentially exposed to the virus, the quicker they can reach those individuals and ask them to quarantine to reduce the risk of exposure to others.

Contact tracers also assist sick individuals needing to isolate with locating resources such as no contact food and medication deliveries and housing if needed.

I took the course offered by Johns Hopkins University on a recent weekend to learn more about what exactly is required of contact tracers.

The roughly six-hour course covered multiple subjects beginning with what medical experts know about Coronavirus and the history of contract tracing as a public health tool. While contact tracing is a new term to many people, health departments have been using contact tracing on a much smaller scale to stop the spread of other infectious diseases for years.

The course also covered the protection of privacy and confidential information since contact tracers will be asking the public to share information many people would not want to disclose to a stranger, information such as medical records, recent activities, and physical symptoms.

"Transparency is key because uptake is so important and you are only going to get uptake if you have the public trust," said Ravi Naik, legal director at AWO, a data rights agency. "The public is only going to trust if they know what is going to happen to the information and what it is going to be used for."

Dr. Ted Long, who is overseeing the city's contact tracing program, said the city has made a big effort to hire individuals who live in the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 so that tracers are familiar trusted, community faces.

"The best contact tracers are people from our communities," Long said.

Health officials have acknowledged, public participation and public trust are huge considerations as contact tracing ramps up around the country, because tracers are only as effective as the information they able to receive.

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