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Massachusetts Expands Contact Tracing For People With COVID-19


Contact tracers are a little like public health detectives. These are the investigators trying to piece together who has COVID-19 and who they have been in contact with. Their work will be so critical in reopening the country. But it's emotionally draining calling people up to try and trace their interactions. Just listen to Harvey Schwartz, a contact tracer in Massachusetts.

HARVEY SCHWARTZ: I think some of the most scared people are parents who are infected with children who aren't. They ask if there's someplace else I could live. They're worried about infecting their children. Who wouldn't be?

GREENE: The state of Massachusetts is planning to hire 1,000 contact tracers by the end of the month. And Dr. Joia Mukherjee is helping lead that effort. She's the chief medical officer of the health nonprofit Partners in Health. And she joins us. Doctor, thanks for being here.

JOIA MUKHERJEE: You're welcome. Thank you for having me on.

GREENE: Sounds like an ambitious initiative you're planning. Can you just explain how it's going to work.

MUKHERJEE: Yes. Well, as Mr. Schwartz outlined, you're talking to people who are in distress. So the important thing is, really, to reach out to each and every person who's had - who's been diagnosed with COVID-19 and trying to understand who they've been in touch with during the period they were infectious or a few days before. And with that, you enumerate a list of their contacts. And those contacts, then, are also called to let them know that they've been in touch with somebody who has COVID-19. And first, you say - how are you, are you OK? - and then secondly, trying to elaborate what quarantine is, because it's different than the social distancing we're doing now - it's more rigorous - and then trying to figure out if they have the ability to quarantine.

You might hear from somebody who has children. And they certainly cannot separate themselves from their children easily. So if there are questions about having the ability, the space, the food needed, the employment, the money to safely quarantine and they don't have those things, then they are referred on to a kind of social work assistant who will help plug them into the resources so that they can keep their family safe because contact tracing is really about care. So it is investigation, as you pointed out. But it's also about caring for people when they're in this time of distress, having someone to listen to them and also help them navigate this really difficult next couple of weeks they're going to face.

GREENE: Sounds amazing. I mean, there's so much going on here. You're not just doing public health work, but you're being, almost, a therapist. You have to come up with kind of a life plan for a person for the coming weeks. I mean, there's a real human element to this job, it sounds like.

MUKHERJEE: Absolutely. And, you know, Partners In Health is a global nonprofit, as you mentioned. We have done medical work for 35 years across a dozen countries. And we always believe that this kind of work, this community work, is about care. It's about compassion. And yes, there's an investigatory element. But the most important thing is for people to understand why we're doing it and to really have a bond with people, to say, we're going to have your back. We're here to help.

GREENE: Are some people uncomfortable being tracked in this way?

MUKHERJEE: I think what we've heard from the contact tracers is some people are reluctant initially because there's a lot of fear, even some stigma. People are worried they won't be able to go to work if they're working. So - but over time, we've chosen people. And we've been fortunate to have thousands of just amazing applicants or people who really, really want to help their fellows in this process...

GREENE: And that's great.

MUKHERJEE: ...And at this time. So I think, over time, we - you know, most of the people who are reluctant feel more at ease. But it is very stressful. And, you know, you think of the stress that we all have in this country right now. It's just magnified if you know. But in a way, there's also a relief in knowing because people, I think, have an uncertainty every time they sneeze or cough these days.


MUKHERJEE: And so I think it can serve a purpose of shining a light, which, at the end of the day, I think, will be a relief to most people.

GREENE: All right. Dr. Joia Mukherjee is the chief medical officer for the global health nonprofit Partners In Health, which is collaborating with Massachusetts on the state's contact-tracing effort that is scaling up in the weeks ahead. She joined us on Skype this morning. Doctor, thank you so much.

MUKHERJEE: Thank you. Have a good day.

GREENE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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