What have you always wondered about the economy? Tell Us

States are trying to build armies of coronavirus contact tracers

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 23, 2020
Contact tracers try to find everyone a person who tested positive for COVID-19 has come into contact with. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

States are trying to build armies of coronavirus contact tracers

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 23, 2020
Contact tracers try to find everyone a person who tested positive for COVID-19 has come into contact with. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Widespread testing is seen as key to easing stay-at-home orders and allowing some parts of the economy to reopen, but capacity to carry out contact tracing is almost as important. Once we identify who has the virus, we’ve got to find and quarantine everyone they’ve had contact with. States are now trying to ramp up the number of contact tracers with public health resources that were already stretched thin.

Before the pandemic, only about 1,600 people around the country were doing this work full time. Experts estimate we’ll need up to 100 times more.

Ashlee Nelson and her team of 40 contact tracers were gearing up for a big testing drive Thursday in Grand Forks, North Dakota. For each positive test, they conduct a detailed interview, asking “how they got places, if they carpooled, who they talked to, how long they talked to people for,” she said.

Nelson is one of 300 new contact tracers hired by the state. Many of them, like her team, are graduate students in public health.

Dr. Joia Mukherjee, with the nonprofit Partners in Health, has been leading the effort for Massachusetts. She said they’ve hired 750 tracers in the last two weeks out of a total goal of 1,000.

Training takes just a few days and can be completed online. Mukherjee said the jobs require basic technology know-how and strong people skills.

“Being kind, being empathic,” she said. “People are scared, people are vulnerable.”

The organization has been inundated with thousands of applications from the newly unemployed.

Dr. George Rutherford of the University of California, San Francisco, is running training for his city’s health department.

“Right now we’re using repurposed workforce, like city attorney’s office, the assessors, some of the librarians,” he said.

California aims to add 10,000 contact tracers from the ranks of current public employees whose work has been paused. Rutherford said the need for more public health workers will persist long after those employees return to their normal jobs.

But many state and local public health systems are chronically underfunded, said Dara Lieberman, with the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.

“That has left public health understaffed and unable to modernize,” she said.

A report from Johns Hopkins estimates it would take $3.6 billion in new funding to add the needed 100,000 public health workers to address the crisis.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What do vaccines mean for economic recovery?

COVID-19 is not going anywhere anytime soon, according to expert witnesses who testified at a recent hearing held by the Joint Economic Committee. Put simply, we can’t eradicate the virus because it infects other species, and there will also be folks who choose not to get the vaccine or don’t mount an immune response, according to Dr. Céline Gounder at NYU School of Medicine & Bellevue Hospital. “That means we can’t only rely on vaccination,” Gounder said. She said the four phases of recovering from the pandemic are ending the emergency, relaxing mitigation measures, getting to herd immunity and having long-term control.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

Read More


Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.