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We've heard a lot about how we need contact tracing if we're going to move to the next phase in the coronavirus outbreak. In New York, they are trying to make that happen. Public health officials there are looking to hire as many as 17,000 investigators for what could become one of the largest contact tracing programs for COVID-19. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in New York City.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: After more than two months of COVID-19 ravaging New York and killing around 27,000 people in the state, public health workers are preparing to make a lot of phone calls that start like this.
KELLY HENNING: I'm an official from the Department of Health. I understand that you have a positive test for coronavirus.
HANSI: Dr. Kelly Henning is an epidemiologist who leads a public health program at former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's charitable foundation, which says it's committing more than $10 million to New York state's new contact tracing efforts.
HENNING: You know, if we don't start the contact tracing work, we're going to have to shelter in place for longer periods. And I think that's something that most people are not wanting to do, obviously. And so the idea is to try to open as safely as possible.
HANSI: And to do that, officials with New York state's program say they need to call people who test positive for the coronavirus, if they can get tested, as well as people with whom they're in close contact from two days before symptoms start to show and until the patient is isolated. Close contacts include anyone who, for at least 15 minutes, was within 6 feet of a person who tests positive.
HENNING: If they've been in high-risk locations, like nursing homes or homeless shelters or other places where there's very high risk, it allows public health to really zero in on those locations.
HANSI: The key to contact tracing is to collect information from people who may be infected as soon as possible. That's especially important with the coronavirus because some people who have it don't have symptoms. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says his state's health department is trying to build up an army.
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ANDREW CUOMO: The estimate, so far, is you need 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people.
HANSI: To start, over the next few weeks, hundreds of contact tracers with the state's program may be deployed to call around New York after they undergo online training that includes a video of actors showing how a contact tracing interview might play out.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Since you were around someone who tested positive and there's a possibility that you're positive too, we strongly recommend that you quarantine yourself.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So I'm just back to staying at home alone without going anywhere?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, that's right.
HANSI: New York City is providing free hotel rooms to anyone who tests positive and cannot self-isolate at home for two weeks. Still, contact tracing has raised concerns about privacy. Sarah Braunstein, who is a director with the city's health department, says investigators with the city's own local efforts for COVID-19 would only share limited information with people who may have been in close contact with a person who tests positive.
SARAH BRAUNSTEIN: We would never mention a name. It would be someone you know, or someone you were in close contact with tested positive for coronavirus and you may have been potentially exposed.
HANSI: Braunstein says, for now, New York City's contact tracers will not be using smartphones to try to track people's exact locations. They're planning to rely mainly on humans. So far, the city has received 7,000 applications for a thousand contact tracing jobs, including from Shernidane Romelus.
SHERNIDANE ROMELUS: I am a student from Brooklyn College. I am studying health and nutrition science with a concentration on public health.
HANSI: Romelus says she used to make dozens of phone calls a day as a case manager for Haitian immigrant students enrolled in New York City schools. And that, she says, could come in handy.
ROMELUS: The thing is, you have to build trust because sometimes people don't want to share information with you like that. You know what I mean?
HANSI: For public health officials in New York, though, it's information they say they're counting on as they prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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