State is recruiting and training an “army” of tracers to control the virus spread

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears on a video screen behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Secretary to the Governor, Melissa DeRosa, to discuss a new contact tracing program his foundation is funding in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing program will begin this month, aimed at understanding and controlling the spread of the virus in the months and years ahead.

The program will operate through the next flu season, and it will be implemented in coordination with tri-state neighbors New Jersey and Connecticut.

An “army” of contact tracers will be recruited from governments and schools across the state, and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University will begin developing an online curriculum and training program for tracers.

“We know increasing our testing capacity is the key to re-opening New York, and the second step after testing is tracing to find out who tested positive, who they contacted and then isolate those people so you don’t increase the rate of infection,” Cuomo said.

As of April 29, New York was performing 30,000 COVID-19 tests per day. The state hopes to continue to increase testing capacity in the coming weeks.

Contact tracing involves reporting positive cases, interviewing the person that tested positive to determine who they have been in contact with, notifying those people to self-isolate for 14 days and monitoring them regularly for symptoms. If they exhibit symptoms, they will report that to the tracers and be tested for the virus as well.

The program will operate with a baseline of 30 tracers per 100,000 people and will utilize additional tracers where necessary, such as areas with the highest rates of infection and in regions that could re-open first.

Officials anticipate up to 17,000 tracers will be needed, depending on case numbers. Yesterday, New York saw 4,681 new cases of COVID-19.

“Tracing is not hard on an individual basis — the problem is the massive scale and with an operation that has never existed before,” Cuomo said. “We need our contact tracing program to come up to scale to meet what we’re doing with testing as soon as possible, and we are working with Mike Bloomberg now to build an army of tracers to meet the state’s demand so we can begin this operation immediately.”

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg joined Cuomo remotely at his daily briefing Thursday to detail the role that his philanthropic foundation will take in developing and implementing the program.

This includes working with the Health Department and nonprofit organizations Vital Strategies and Resolve to Save Lives to recruit, train and manage thousands of tracers, as well as developing smartphone apps to help manage the program effectively. Bloomberg Philanthropies has committed $10.5 million to contact tracing efforts.

Tracers will be employees recruited from health departments and other government entities across the state, as well as SUNY and CUNY students in the medical field. They will be trained through Johns Hopkins online curriculum, and will have to pass an exam before completing the program.

Bloomberg announced that Vital Strategies is beginning to develop three smartphone apps: one to help tracers easily access data and information, one to help the public provide information to health departments and one that will allow the public to report symptoms and access guidance and services. The organization will also develop a “playbook” on effective contact tracing strategies, which will be released to other states and countries as they begin to implement contact tracing protocols.

“The work we do here in New York really can help fight the virus globally,” Bloomberg said. “We’ll also bring in a group of outside experts to conduct an evaluation of the program so that other states and countries can see what worked well and identify areas they can improve on. We’ll learn as we go, make adjustments and share what we’ve learned.”

Gov. Cuomo also announced Thursday that the MTA will be shutting down from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. every day for enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Alternative transportation will be provided by the MTA at no cost to essential workers.