Apr 14, 2020 - Health

The latest coronavirus red flag: contact tracing

Illustration of two people holding phones with a target over one phone.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Widespread contact tracing will be key to the next phase of our coronavirus response, but the U.S. is severely behind.

Why it matters: Contact tracing — tracking down the people who have interacted with a coronavirus patient, so they can quarantine — helps prevent the virus from spreading.

As with diagnostic testing, the U.S. missed its chance to do this before the coronavirus caseload got too high.

  • But once we begin to lift our social distancing measures, we’ll have to immediately implement these basic public health measures to avoid the caseload from immediately ramping back up.

Where it stands: Neither the federal government nor most state and local governments have a plan to drastically increase contact tracing.

  • A recent report by Johns Hopkins’ Center for Health Security estimated that the public health workforce would need to add about 100,000 new workers to do contact tracing.
  • We also don’t have the diagnostic testing capacity that experts say we’d need to safety phase into normal life.

What they’re saying: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield told NPR last week that the agency is working on a plan to ramp up contact tracing.

  • "We have over 600 people in the field right now from CDC in all the states trying to help with this response, but we are going to have to substantially amplify that," he added.

Yes, but: Some states and communities are trying to get ahead of the curve.

  • Massachusetts, for example, is working to deploy nearly 1,000 contact tracers.
  • Apple and Google last week announced a joint effort to notify people via smartphone — on a voluntary basis — if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus, Axios’ Ina Fried reports.

The bottom line: "Failing to invest in and train more workers for contact tracing now could extend this crisis months," said Chris Meekins, a former Trump administration health official who is now an analyst at Raymond James.

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