You’ve probably heard the buzz lately about “contact tracing,” which when successful, can help track the transmission of COVID-19 and prevent new infections in the wake of positive test results. It’s not a new concept, but it does have a renewed sense of urgency amidst the current pandemic. So, how does it actually work—and who’s doing it in Colorado?
Public health officials and trained community members are ramping up efforts to follow and document the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to do so, they’re relying on contact tracing in the absence of a vaccine. Tracers reach out to those who have tested positive for COVID-19 to determine who they’ve been in close contact with. Then, they make calls to notify close contacts of their potential exposure to the virus, instruct them to get tested and tell them how to quarantine, and connect them with additional community resources they might need. The goal, in short, is to prevent sick people from spreading COVID-19.
According to some reports, Colorado would need more than 1,700 contact tracers to to adequately mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At this point, it’s unclear exactly how many tracers are currently active throughout the state since some county public health agencies have launched tracing internally. Chris Jones, project coordinator with the Rocky Mountain Public Health Training Center at the Colorado School of Public Health, says his organization—in conjunction with the Denver Prevention Training Center, and the Patient Navigator Training Collaborative—has trained 350 contact tracers, 105 case investigators, and 86 resource coordinators, and are training about 120 new people per week to fill these positions.
Additionally, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) partnered with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to mobilize more than 800 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members to support local agencies in their contact tracing efforts. CNCS has provided nearly $2 million dollars in funding for new AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associates and Senior Corps volunteers.
If you’re interested in becoming a contact tracer, you can apply through Serve Colorado, CDPHE, AmeriCorps NCCC, and Senior Corps RSVP. Generally, anyone can apply to be a tracer—it’s an entry-level position—but it helps to have a background in health. If that’s the case, those individuals may be able to opt out of some training.
“It’s not limited to health professionals,” Jones says. “Plenty of people from a wide range of backgrounds are applying.”
Applications are different across the board, but generally require basics like a resume and cover letter—and you may also need to pass a background check. Most of the positions are remote, and almost all contact tracing positions have a stipend at this point, says Sarah Lampe, CEO at the Trailhead Institute. Contact tracing positions through local health agencies are paid, though the rate varies across the board, Jones says. He’s seeing hires anywhere from $18-22 an hour.
There are three critical positions to the contact tracing process: contact tracers, case investigators, and resource coordinators—all of which handle sensitive health information. Lampe says tracers’ qualifications include an ability to build trust within others in vulnerable situations, having excellent communication and interpersonal skills, and a dedication to privacy. These elements are the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful trace, she says.
“We’re looking at people who can have conversations with really anyone, no matter their background or belief system, and really keeping that confidentiality at the highest and most important part of the work,” she says.
Lampe says The Trailhead Institute is also working on establishing state-wide communication strategies to increase community awareness and understanding of the impacts of contact tracing. The process is widely believed to be an important step in containing a virus, especially while awaiting a vaccine. But there are also groups who believe it to be an infringement of their privacy, like Facebook groups “Colorado Refuses Contact tracing” and “Americans Against Contact Tracing -Outraged and Unified Together.”
The latter states that their group—AACT-OUT for short—is designed to “combat the massive overreach by the government as it pertains to our right to privacy and forced vaccination. As an American citizen [we] feel it is our duty to delay, demand and disrupt the contact tracing system. [We] believe, it is by design to only further subjugate American citizens while invading one’s privacy and constricting civil liberties.”
Citizens are not required to answer contact tracing calls, but public health officials are urging the public to do so to slow the spread—which has become an uphill battle, Jones says.
“We’re seeing the politicization of simple scientifically supported guidelines—so much so that public health officials are leaving or retiring in droves,” he says. “It is imperative that more support and trust is given to public health. We just won’t get out of this without a unified response.”