As States Reopen, Do They Have Enough Staff To Do Contact Tracing? : Shots - Health News NPR surveyed all 50 states to find out how many people they have doing contact tracing — one of the essential tools for keeping outbreaks from flaring up. Look up your state to see how it's doing.

As States Reopen, Do They Have The Workforce They Need To Stop Coronavirus Outbreaks?

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Contact tracers are public health workers who find every person who test positive for COVID-19, reach out to their close contacts and ask them to quarantine. Health officials say, if you want a safe reopening, you need enough people doing this work. Do we have enough contact tracers, though? Back in April, NPR surveyed states to count. And this morning, we have an update. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been looking into the numbers. Good morning.


KING: Remind us, Selena, where things were when you surveyed the states in late April.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: At that point, states reported a total of around 11,000 contact tracers. And nearly all states told NPR they were planning to hire and scale up that workforce. So about a month later, we reached out to states again to ask how things had changed.

KING: And what'd you find?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Nationally, the contact tracing workforce has tripled. It's gone from 11,000 to more than 37,000. Now, that's far less than the 100,000 tracers or more that some influential public health experts have called for. And part of that may be the money estimated to be needed for that big workforce.

One estimate was $12 billion. That hasn't come through from Congress. There still hasn't been a big investment or attention from the federal government on contact tracing. I asked Crystal Watson what she thought of NPR's findings. She's a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. And here's what she told me.

CRYSTAL WATSON: I am simultaneously impressed at all the efforts that have been undertaken. But I'm also, at the same time, concerned because we're seeing these increases in case numbers.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And the reason why that's concerning is because this virus spreads really fast. A community can think they have enough contact tracers. But if there's an outbreak, that could change. And the tracers you have may not be enough to keep up and keep the outbreak in check.

KING: One of the confusing things here, though - or complicating factors, I guess I should say - is that the virus isn't spreading the same in all places in the U.S. We've got some places, relatively no cases. And others have thousands. And the numbers are rising. How do you figure out which states have enough and which states really need to scale up?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So to figure that out, NPR used Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator developed by researchers at the George Washington University's Mullan Institute. And it looks at how many COVID cases there have been in the past two weeks and then puts out the number of tracers you'd need to be able to handle that workload. So when NPR analyzed the data, we found seven states do have enough in this moment to trace their coronavirus cases. And those states are Alaska, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia, along with D.C. and the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

And some states reported having reserved staff, maybe volunteers or government workers who've been trained to trace and can be called on as needed. And if you add in that extra capacity, six more states have enough. So you can go to and look up your state and see how many tracers there are and how that compares to the estimated need.

KING: But based on what you've just said, there are still dozens of states that don't have enough contact tracers. Are they saying that they'll hire more? Are they treating this like a serious problem?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, some are. For instance, California is working towards 10,000 contact tracers. They've still got 4,000 to go to meet that goal. Nevada and New Jersey are planning to hire more, too. But many states indicated they feel they have enough tracers given the level of coronavirus where they are. And they aren't planning to add more. A few states that do not appear to be scaling up contact tracers are Alabama, Arizona and Texas, which are all coronavirus hotspots right now.

KING: Selena Simmons-Duffin. Selena, thanks so much for your reporting.


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