So You Want to be a Contact Tracer in New Jersey?

The Jersey Shore before the storm by Laura Stinchcomb

Finally! Last week the CDC recommended to congress that 30,00- 100,000 contact tracers be in place in the United States before a possible next spike in novel coronavirus, Sars-Cov-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) this September. Local New Jersey publications have been interviewing health departments throughout the State about their intent to hire contact tracers. However, anecdotally, I had seen little evidence of mass hiring in New Jersey.

Because of my healthcare knowledge, hospice volunteer training, ability to interview and make cold calls, I figure that I would make good contact tracer for COVID-19 and I am willing do this as a volunteer because I feel so strongly about containing this novel virus. This past May, I signed up and completed Coursera’s free contact tracing certificate program sponsored by Johns Hopkins. I also registered with the State of New Jersey’s database for people wanting paid/volunteer contact tracing jobs, received a 19-digit confirmation number and a subsequent email suggesting that I take another free e-course on contact tracing sponsored by ASTHOS (Association of State and Territorial Health Officials)- Which I did!

At least four of my well qualified friends told me that they also registered with the Department of Government NJ Contact Tracer hiring database and they also had received long verification codes but no additional word on hiring. Was the state too overwhelmed with responses from the legions of unemployed or were health departments trying to make due with the current staff and already contracted town employees to help fill the gap between need and declining state/town revenues?

The official COVID-19 Information Hub for the State of New Jersey says that it IS hiring aCommunity Contact Tracing Corps… at least 1,000 and as many as 5,000 contact tracers may be needed in New Jersey”  Efforts are to be spear headed by … “Rutgers University, led by their School of Public Health and including the School of Health Professions, School of Nursing, School of Social Work, and Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, we will launch the corps and create several hundred jobs. We will also be expanding the effort to include other colleges and universities throughout the state.”

Just this weekend, I spoke to a Dean of an urban New Jersey community college who is looking into continuing education programs to supplement New Jersey’s Contact Tracing training but everything seems to be on hold-or stuck. Last week, I called my town’s health department to find out where they were with regard to getting contact tracers on board (I told her that I would work Pro Bono). They too are in a kind of limbo and are waiting for ComCare digital platform -which will integrate the surrounding state with a digital platform- to get rolled out and further instruction from New Jersey.  My town’s health department supports 8 townships consisting of approximately 110,000 citizens and would love to have tracers who are familiar with local support services. I gave them my name just in case the Big Government database doesn’t really trickle over to them.

Contact tracing is a decades old method to contact those who are infectious with a communicable disease, identify their contacts – those who may also be potentially infected- and ensure that they are all compliant with medical treatment -or in the case of COVID-19- in isolation or quarantine.  I personally feel that for contact tracers to really be effective, there are far more issues than getting funding, training, a software platform, contact tracers and service coordinators in place.

Compliance for Quarantine or Isolation require services that we just don’t have in place yet or have been greatly displaced. Each state and town will have to have its own method and support structures for people who must isolate or quarantine themselves. In many places, I believe social services may fall short. Neither the Coursera course or the ASTHOS course are really able to describe what “real” support will look like because that will have to fall within each jurisdiction. In fact, in the ASTHOS one(a particularly difficult e course to navigate) the suggestion that the contact tracer might be also possibly send hand sanitizer and a thermometer AND refer them to social services,while certainly helpful, made me laugh. In the mock interviews in the Johns Hopkins course, the objections of the “cases” (those infected with COVID-19) to isolation are magically solved by some kind of sleight of hand where, as far as I can tell, magical services that don’t really exist are produced.

To get people to a place where they can miss work, take care of elderly parents or children, make meals for a family, clean and disinfect a house, isolate in a separate space with a private bathroom from the rest of the roommates all while possibly being really sick – will take resources which I have yet to hear of in my NJ town. I have resources and I could not even get a grocery delivery to my home at the peak of the pandemic.

We are experiencing such an unprecedented disruption to our economy combined with the need to socially distance. Many of the social services that people rely on are non-governmental and volunteer-based and have had to re think how they operate.  In a blink of an eye, my volunteer jobs in a hospice and long-term care facility and delivery job for our library’s Books on Wheels program evaporated. Moreover, the Presbyterian Church in Westfield had to suspend its volunteer-run Agape Community Food kitchen in the beginning of New Jersey’s stay at home orders in March due to the health risks. The church provided almost 200 hot meals once the of a week to hungry people in Elizabeth. AFTER THREE MONTHS, the church and Agape Volunteers have cobbled together a new “hyper local” supplemental food to delivery 30 needy families in Westfield, NJ once a week. Families displaced by the pandemic.

Clearly lots will have to be put into place, and I hope New Jersey really does have the next two and a half months to prepare for a possible next spike of infections. I also hope that the other states who are now experiencing their first waves can look to New York and New Jersey for help. Meanwhile, I will be promoting contact tracing to my friends so we can get up to speed.