What Will It Take To Reopen U.S.? CDC Says 'Aggressive' Contact Tracing : Shots - Health News We're in shutdown mode for now, but what comes next? Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is working on a plan to safely reopen the country.
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CDC Director: 'Very Aggressive' Contact Tracing Needed For U.S. To Return To Normal

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CDC Director: 'Very Aggressive' Contact Tracing Needed For U.S. To Return To Normal

CDC Director: 'Very Aggressive' Contact Tracing Needed For U.S. To Return To Normal

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the U.S. will need an army of health workers to guard against the coronavirus in order for this country to safely reopen. In an interview with NPR, Robert Redfield said the CDC is working on a plan to build this army. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein conducted the interview along with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly. And Rob is with us now. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So when Robert Redfield says we need an army of health workers, what does he mean?

STEIN: So you know, whenever the pandemic finally does peak and starts to recede, the virus will still be around. And you know, lots of people will still be vulnerable. So one of the key weapons that will be needed to try to keep it from roaring back will be enough disease detectives, you know, to swoop in at the first signs of any new outbreaks flaring up to track everyone down who might have been exposed - that's what's called contact tracing - to keep the virus in check. And that takes an enormous amount of personnel. Here's what CDC Director Robert Redfield said about that when I asked him about it during the interview.

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ROBERT REDFIELD: You hit it on the head. We are going to need a substantial expansion of public health field workers, and it is going to be critical. We can't afford to have multiple community outbreaks that then can spiral up into sustained community transmission. So it is going to be a very aggressive - what I call block and tackle, block and tackle.

KING: Rob, I hear him say substantial expansion. And I hear him saying we don't currently have enough health workers for all of this.

STEIN: Yeah. That's right, not even close. You know, understaffed and underfunded health departments around the country are nowhere near being able to handle that sort of thing. And that's prompted some public health experts to propose creating a kind of civilian corps of disease SWAT teams to snuff out any new outbreaks. Redfield said the CDC currently has more than 600 workers deployed around the country. But he's planning to, what he calls, substantially amplify that to help state and local health departments get ready. He wouldn't go into any detail, but he made it clear a plan is coming soon.

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REDFIELD: We're definitely in the middle of all of that. It's premature for me to roll it out. But obviously, if we're going to try to get this nation back to work shortly after the end of this month, we're far along in those planning processes as we speak today. And it will be in the near future.

KING: So Rob, in the end, is it all about people? Do we just need more people in order to stay on top of this virus?

STEIN: Well, you know, we'll also have to make sure that the hospitals are ready, you know, next time, if the virus comes roaring back. And some experts say we may also need to turn to some of those more high-tech strategies that other countries use, you know, like using cellphone data to help track people and figure out everyone an infected person came into contact with so they can quickly quarantine them to prevent them from spreading the virus. I asked Redfield about that, too.

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REDFIELD: People are looking at all the different modern technology that could be brought to bear to make contact tracing more efficient and effective. Are there more, if you will say, tech-savvy ways to be more comprehensive in contact tracing versus the old-fashioned way? You know, currently these things are under aggressive evaluation.

STEIN: Now, Noel, that idea can obviously raise lots of concerns about privacy.

KING: Sure.

STEIN: And Redfield stressed that contact tracing will ultimately be done on a state and local level. But the CDC will provide help and advice, and several U.S. groups have already developed that kind of technology designed to protect people's privacy.

KING: Lastly, Rob, I know you asked Redfield about a problem that this country has had from the jump, which is that there are not enough tests; the tests aren't where they need to be. What did he say about testing?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, the CDC is taking a lot of heat for the testing debacle. And during our interview, he defended how the agency handled that and stressed that more than 2 million Americans have now been tested and as many as 120,000 are being tested every day now. But testing is still a big problem, and lots of experts say we still need way more testing to get the pandemic under control and keep it there. And Redfield did acknowledge another problem that's recently emerged about testing - the government isn't even getting all the results of the testing that is being done. So he says the CDC's trying to fix that now, too.

KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks for this, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

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