Massachusetts launched an effort to contain the coronavirus by finding anyone who tested positive, identifying their close contacts, and asking the two groups of people to isolate until they were no longer contagious.
As the first week of calls draws to a close:
- Contact investigators reached 765 Massachusetts residents who tested positive at the end of Thursday.
- These 765 people identified more than a thousand close contacts, which means that someone spent more than 15 minutes within six feet in the three days before their positive test.
- Contact tracers reached 626 of these people.
Here are some points to remember from this lot of numbers.
First, positive people identify fewer close contacts than expected by project organizers. This could be due to the fact that many Massachusetts residents stay at home or distance themselves from others when they are away. The number of contacts and the spread of the virus are likely to increase when the advice to stay at home ends.
Second, many people listed as close contacts do not answer their phone when a contact tracer calls. Project organizers say they realize that many people may assume the calls are spam or a hoax. They are therefore organizing a campaign around this message:
“Help us help you. To stop COVID in Massachusetts, answer this call, ”says John Welch. He is the Director of Partnerships and Operations for the MA Covid Response Project at Partners in Health, the nonprofit working in collaboration with the administration of Governor Charlie Baker.
But getting a number that people wouldn’t assume was spam was difficult. Welch says major telecommunications companies have agreed to let contact tracing calls go – and not block them as spam. Massachusetts has got two prefixes for all contact tracing calls: 833 or 857. Ideally, the incoming caller will appear as “the MA COVID team”.
But here’s the thing: for now, this will only happen if the person receiving the call pays for caller ID. Massachusetts is asking Sprint, Verizon, and others to waive caller identification fees, and hopes that phone owners will activate this feature. This seemingly easy step, creating a reliable phone number, was anything but.
To date, 348 people have been trained to become contact tracers – most of them on the job. 200 other new recruits are in training this weekend. They are callers, supervisors, and a team of a team of people who will help coordinate care and resources for those in quarantine or in isolation. These resource coordinators hit the road on Monday to help with medical help, food, babysitting, or who will walk the dog.
One of the newly hired contact investigators, Kerry Robarge, says that she is plunged into the pandemic with each call.
“When we reach out, we find people in overcrowded living conditions or find a large number of people in organizations that have all tested positive,” says Robarge. “We are talking to people who are very scared. “
The project is not yet statewide. Partners in Health follows cases in 15 communities. Welch says it started with cities and towns that have asked for help. Local health boards have been doing this work on a limited basis since the Massachusetts coronavirus outbreak in late February. But many are quickly overwhelmed.
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Partners in Health and its new army of tracers could also be quickly overtaken, despite the rapid pace of hiring. The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts increased by 1,924 people every day, on average, this week.
“I’m worried about a wave,” says Welch, “by ensuring that we hire the right number of people and are able to be productive on the phone while remaining a sympathetic and compassionate ear. “
The League of Massachusetts Community Health Centers says 38 member centers are planning to join the effort. They are close to an agreement that would employ around 300 people, some of whom are health workers who have been put on leave by health centers. Staff would work in teams of seven: a contact investigator who initiates and maintains a relationship with a positive person, five contact tracers who find that person’s close contacts, and a resource coordinator.
By participating, “Community health centers can focus on what they do best: build on the trust they have built with their communities to engage those most at risk of being infected with the virus” said Jim Hunt, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.
Massachusetts has published a kind of “user guide” for other regions or states interested in using contact tracking to contain the coronavirus.
During this week’s briefings, Governor Baker repeatedly spoke of the promise he sees in contact tracing.
“We consider this to be a critical effort not only to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but to help our Commonwealth return to a semblance of normal life,” he said.