AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Massachusetts is launching an effort to reach everyone who may have the coronavirus to get them tested and into isolation or treatment, if needed. The ambitious goal is to not just slow down but to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19. But there are significant obstacles. From member station WBUR in Boston, Martha Bebinger reports.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: It's called contact tracing, and it starts with a call to someone who's tested positive for the coronavirus. Local public health workers across the country are doing it a few cases at a time. Massachusetts plans to call everyone who's tested positive and then everyone that person was in close contact with and so on - a lot of people.
JOIA MUKHERJEE: Yes, thousands - thousands of them.
BEBINGER: Dr. Joia Mukherjee is the chief medical officer at Partners in Health. It's a Boston-based nonprofit that in the past has run contact tracing projects, like for Ebola in West Africa. Mukherjee sees it as going on the offensive because, she says, the current defensive strategy is not enough.
MUKHERJEE: The defensive is, we're going to get creamed - right? - and let's just make sure our hospitals are staffed. What we're saying is, let's use tools that can reach into that silent epidemic and start to cut that off.
BEBINGER: Here's how it will work - Partners in Health is hiring a thousand contact tracers, who will call people who have tested positive. The tracers will ask them for names of everyone they had close contact with - close here means being within six feet of someone for more than a brief interaction. Then, the tracers will call those people and send them for testing. The next step is isolation for everyone who tests positive. That means staying at home for at least two weeks. If you don't have an extra room to isolate or do not have a home, Massachusetts plans to offer to put you up somewhere, maybe a hotel or dorm.
MUKHERJEE: It's going to be a huge job. I know that we will succeed somewhat and we will fail somewhat. We won't be able to find every single person, but we will hopefully prevent a lot of deaths.
BEBINGER: And the effort, if it works, might allow Massachusetts to lift social distancing requirements sooner than other states. But there are lots of hurdles. A big one - still not enough rapid tests. Dr. Sandro Galea, dean at the Boston University School of Public Health, says while more testing and quicker lab work is promised, it's not clear when that's coming.
SANDRO GALEA: I suppose the answer is it's unfolding in real time. Whether we'll have the tools tomorrow remains to be seen.
BEBINGER: Galea also wishes this could have been done earlier. He says contact tracing is most effective in an emerging epidemic, before something like the coronavirus has spread.
GALEA: It is certainly late. Had we had the tests and were we organized enough to do contact tracing right up front, it would have potentially taken us down a very different path in this epidemic.
BEBINGER: But Galea says contact tracing might help avoid a second wave of infections. Massachusetts may be rolling out the most robust expansion of contact tracing, but Utah, North Dakota and other states are also launching projects. The price tag in Massachusetts, $44 million, may be daunting. But Governor Charlie Baker told reporters that contact tracing is a, quote, "powerful tool the state must try to prevent more infections."
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CHARLIE BAKER: We need to get out ahead of this and do everything we possibly can here in Massachusetts through and in the aftermath of the surge.
BEBINGER: Partners in Health is collaborating with community health centers in Massachusetts to do the tracing. That means the centers can bring back employees they had to furlough recently when elective medical care stopped. And it connects people to clinics where they could be tested and speak to a nurse or a doctor.
For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
CHANG: And this story comes from a reporting partnership between NPR, WBUR and Kaiser Health News.
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