Home Health News N.Y.C. Hired 3,000 Workers for Contact Tracing. It’s Not Going Well. – The New York Times

N.Y.C. Hired 3,000 Workers for Contact Tracing. It’s Not Going Well. – The New York Times

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New York City’s ambitious contact-tracing program, a crucial initiative in the effort to curb the coronavirus, has gotten off to a worrisome start just as the city’s reopening enters a new phase on Monday, with outdoor dining, in-store shopping and office work resuming.

The city has hired 3,000 disease detectives and case monitors, who are supposed to identify anyone who has come into contact with the hundreds of people who are still testing positive for the virus in the city every day. But the first statistics from the program, which began on June 1, indicate that tracers are often unable to locate infected people or gather information from them.

Only 35 percent of the 5,347 city residents who tested positive or were presumed positive for Covid-19 in the program’s first two weeks gave information about close contacts to tracers, the city said in releasing the first statistics.

Contact tracing is one of the few tools that public health officials have to fight Covid-19 in lieu of a vaccine, along with widespread testing and isolation of those exposed to the coronavirus. The early results of New York’s program raise fresh concerns about the difficulties in preventing a surge of new cases as states across the country reopen.

The city has successfully done contact tracing before, with diseases like tuberculosis and measles. But as with much involving the coronavirus outbreak, officials have never faced the challenge at this scale, with so many cases across the five boroughs.

The city’s program has so far been limited by a low response rate, scant use of technology, privacy concerns and a far less sweeping mandate than that in some other countries, where apartment buildings, stores, restaurants and other private businesses are often required to collect visitors’ personal information, which makes tracking the spread easier.

China, South Korea and Germany and other countries have set up extensive tracking programs that have helped officials make major strides in reducing the outbreak. In South Korea, for example, people at weddings, funerals, karaoke bars, nightclubs and internet-game parlors write down their names and telephone numbers, and the authorities have been able to draw on cellphone location data, credit card transactions and even closed-circuit video footage to identify and isolate potential contacts.

Dr. Ted Long, head of New York City’s new Test and Trace Corps, insisted that the program was going well, but acknowledged that many people who tested positive had failed to provide information over the phone to the contact tracers, or left interviews before being asked. Others told the tracers they had been only at home and had not put others at risk, and then did not name family members.

Dr. Long said one encouraging sign was that nearly all the people for whom the city had numbers at least answered the phone. He added that he believed that the tracers would be more successful when they start going to people’s homes in the next week or two, rather than just relying on communication over the phone.

“I do think that the program, especially because it is only two weeks old, is doing an outstanding job,” he said.

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The city has made major strides in reducing the outbreak since the shutdown began in March, with only 327 new cases reported on Thursday, down from several thousand cases a day during the peak. But Phase 2 of the reopening on Monday presents new risks, with 300,000 people likely returning to their jobs.

Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the School of Public Health at Rutgers University, which is guiding an effort to bring on thousands of tracers in New Jersey, called New York City’s 35 percent rate for eliciting contacts “very bad.”

“For each person, you should be in touch with 75 percent of their contacts within a day,” he said.

He suggested that the poor showing stemmed in part from the inexperience of the contact tracers and insufficient hands-on training.

“This is a skill,” he said. “You need to practice.”

Across the world, the authorities have rushed to set up contact-tracing programs, hiring hundreds of thousands of people, including many without experience doing such work. While the goal is to reach all of a sick person’s contacts, and get them to effectively quarantine for two weeks, the reality is often much messier.

In Massachusetts, which has one of the most established tracing programs in the country, health officials said in May that only about 60 percent of infected patients were picking up the phone. In Louisiana, less than half were answering. In England, the program has struggled to show results with a low-paid, inexperienced work force.

An increasing number of countries are using phone applications to help track and trace people who test positive. Several states in the United States, including North Dakota, that have tried using digital applications have run into privacy issues.

But in New York, as in most of the country, contact tracers are typically using only low-tech tools like phone calls and a questionnaire, in part to allay privacy concerns.

The tracers are seeking the names and phone numbers of each person a confirmed-positive patient has been in close contact with from a few days before the onset of symptoms, defined as within six feet for at least 15 minutes. Each contact is then called, told that he or she may have been exposed to the virus, and asked to quarantine.

The relative silence from virus patients in New York City is one of several issues troubling the contact-tracing program.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has had tense relations with senior officials in his own Department of Health, stripped the department of oversight for the program in May, moving it under the umbrella of the city’s public hospitals agency. That has led to concerns among some former health officials that expertise would be lost in the process.

Dr. Long said 50 experts from the Department of Health — the city’s contact tracers before Covid-19, who have handled epidemics such as measles and Ebola — are guiding the work of the tracing corps, but are not tracing themselves.

Dr. Long is a primary care physician and vice president of ambulatory care at the public hospitals corporation. The Health Department’s tracing effort was led by epidemiologists.

“I challenge anyone to show me how we are not collaborating,” he said of the relationship between the two agencies. “They have been nothing short of partners.”

The city has had more success with its testing program, which is ahead of schedule, with a target of 50,000 tests per day expected to be reached in July, instead of August, officials said.

But an initiative to set aside hotel rooms for people who have tested positive to isolate from families is not popular. Though the city rented 1,200 hotel rooms for free use by virus patients, only 60 to 80 rooms have been occupied in recent weeks, city officials said. And in the two and a half weeks since tracing began, only 40 patients have requested rooms through the tracing program, Dr. Long said.

Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Over 1,000 virus patients have instead asked for support to isolate at home, such as assistance with grocery and medicine deliveries, because they preferred to remain with their families, he said.

In an effort to build a connection between contacts and tracers, half of all tracers hired live in communities hard-hit by the virus, which are predominately black and Hispanic, Dr. Long said.

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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 16, 2020

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


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Sivanthy Vasanthan, 23, who just graduated from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said recruiters reached out to her based on her LinkedIn profile, which emphasizes her interest in public health and human rights.

After about two weeks of training, Ms. Vasanthan, who lives in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, began calling positive patients just over a week ago. “Most of the people who I have talked to have already been aware of their test results and have been at home,” she said.

The city gave no metrics for whether it was successfully persuading those contacted to get tested or to quarantine.

Experts said that while tracing in the city was not where it should be, the program was clearly beneficial and should push forward.

“It’s tough to look at these numbers and say it’s a roaring success,” said Dr. Crystal Watson, an expert on contact tracing at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But I do think it is a beginning and it will build on itself.”

Dr. Halkitis at Rutgers said he thought the low cooperation rate was likely due to several factors, including the inexperience of the tracers; widespread reluctance among Americans to share personal information with the government; and Mayor de Blasio’s decision to shift the program away from the city’s Department of Health.

“You have taken it away from the people who actually know how to do it,” he said. “The D.O.H. people, they are skilled. They know this stuff.”

On Tuesday, the city laid out strategies to close the gap in tracing. For the 15 percent of positive cases that have come in without an accurate phone number, Dr. Long said, tracers have begun reaching out to doctor’s offices and doing database research to get that information.

And for people who have tested positive and are unresponsive to phone calls, field workers like Daniel Okpare, a public health student in East Harlem, will soon try to interview them in person.

Mr. Okpare, 30, is still in training, but has been told he will mostly be visiting patients in Harlem, near where he lives. He said he hoped his background as a former podiatry student who is enrolled in New York University’s School of Global Public Health, as well as his being an immigrant from Nigeria, would help put people at ease.

Wearing personal protective equipment, and carrying a city-issued iPad and a cellphone, he will be working alone while knocking on doors.

“It’s an opportunity to be part of the front line of response as a public health professional,” he said. “To have eye contact with someone to say, ‘Yes you have Covid, but we are going to find every way possible that you will be safe.’”

Anne Barnard contributed reporting.

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