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What Would Contact Tracing For Coronavirus Look Like?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that reopening the U.S. economy during the coronavirus pandemic will require aggressive contact tracing. Now, contact tracing is a public health tool used for trying to contain outbreaks. It's been used for Ebola, tuberculosis, HIV, lots of contagious illnesses. The CDC says they'll release a plan soon to help state and local governments start doing more contact tracing, but Massachusetts has already begun. It's building its own system to do contact tracing. WBUR health reporter Martha Bebinger joins us now. Martha, thanks so much for being with us.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And why is Massachusetts trying to do this?

BEBINGER: The organizers call this the offensive strategy. They say wrapping up hospital capacity to defend against the pandemic, Scott, just is not enough. So the group that's going to run this project, Partners in Health, has lots of experience with contact tracing to slow the spread of epidemics - in West Africa in Ebola, cholera in Haiti. Still, this is a very daunting and difficult challenge. So right now, Scott, Massachusetts has more than 20,000 positive cases. That's a lot of people to track down, as well as all of the people they may have had close contact with. It's all about trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus, though, reduce deaths and maybe loosen the social distancing rule so people can go back to work and school.

SIMON: How will it work?

BEBINGER: Well, Partners in Health has a state contract to hire 1,000 people who will start making calls. Many of these people will be health center workers from community health centers. They've had to lay off staff recently because they lost a lot of revenue from elective procedures. So the tracers will start calling everyone who's tested positive. They'll ask about their close contacts and work backward from there. They'll refer people for tests and medical care if they need it. Everybody who is positive for the coronavirus, whether they're sick or not, will have to be in isolation for about two weeks so that they don't keep spreading the virus.

SIMON: But how does any of this work if there aren't enough tests?

BEBINGER: Well, that's a big question. You can't trace the spread of the coronavirus if you can't figure out who has it. And people may be willing to isolate, Scott, in a room alone if they are sure they are positive, but asking them to isolate while they wait days for a test result, I mean, that's a really tough ask for a mom with kids or a younger person who's still working. So the project organizers here in Massachusetts are banking on those promises that we hear every day from the White House that more rapid tests will be available in the coming days. They're moving on many kind of parallel tracks at once trying to get this effort off the ground that no other state is trying to do for all of its residents with the coronavirus.

SIMON: What else will the state have to do to try and make contact tracing work?

BEBINGER: Well, you know, the idea that you're going to put tens of thousands of people into isolation is doable if everybody has a home. But many people live in crowded apartments where they don't have a spare room. And, of course, we have many people on the streets who don't have a home at all. And so they need to stand up - find some dorms and hotel rooms and maybe other types of isolation centers. We don't have the details on that yet.

SIMON: And, Martha, any idea how much this might cost?

BEBINGER: The budget is $44 million. It seems some of that money will come from a federal disaster relief grant, but we haven't seen the details yet.

SIMON: WBUR's health reporter Martha Bebinger, thanks so much.

BEBINGER: So happy to be here, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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