RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Coronavirus cases are surging in this country, but the contact tracing workforce is not. That's the finding of NPR's latest survey of all 50 states on their contact tracing capacity. The survey was done in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been spearheading this work. It is the third time NPR has done this since the pandemic began. Selena, thanks for being here.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So just start off - remind us what contact tracing is and why it is so important right now.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Contact tracers are public health workers. And their job is to call each person who's just tested positive, track down their contacts and then connect both the sick person and those who were potentially exposed with the services they need to be able to safely isolate. So the idea is that it keeps people who could spread the virus away from the larger community. And it can also give us really important data about where transmission is really happening.
MARTIN: All right. So again, you surveyed all 50 states - because you have done this before. So this is the most recent one. And you...
MARTIN: Your question is how many of these public health workers that they actually have. I hinted at the answer in the intro. But what did you find?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the total number barely budged since we surveyed states six weeks ago. In mid-June, we found 37,000 tracers, this time, just about 42,000. So the real total may be higher. There were five states that didn't respond to us, including New York, which has been public about their push to hire thousands of tracers. But even if the real total is a bit higher, we're nowhere near the number experts calculated we would need to be able to keep transmission at bay.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And those estimates were around 100,000 or higher.
MARTIN: So as part of this, you looked at each state and ran analysis based on what each state would need - right? - in order to...
MARTIN: ...Control local transmission. What'd you find there?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Only four states and Washington, D.C., have enough tracers based on our analysis. The states are Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. And if you count their reserve staff, three more states have enough - Michigan, Montana and Hawaii. And that is fewer states than had enough when we ran this analysis six weeks ago.
MARTIN: Any idea why?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the obvious reason is that there are just more cases than there were six weeks ago. In some places where there's a lot of virus circulating and lots of new cases every day, the number of tracers you would need to be able to keep up is just enormous. In Florida, California and Texas, our calculations suggest that each state would need 30,000 contact tracers. So I talked about this with Crystal Watson at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who collaborated with us on the survey. And here's what she said.
CRYSTAL WATSON: It's unreasonable to expect that sort of workforce. What is really needed right now is for political leaders to take action.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The action she's talking about is social distancing measures, you know, stay-at-home orders, business restrictions, even things like mask mandates. Those are the kind of things that can get case counts to a place where contact tracing can really be effective again.
MARTIN: But if you listen to her, Salena, she sounds like she's just giving up on contact tracing, that the situation is just so bad. I mean, is it still worth it given how daunting the surge is right now? Is contact tracing worth the effort?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes, that's the simple answer. Even if it's not a silver bullet to control transmission, it still helps. And the stakes are life and death. At this point, we can't afford to stop using any of the tools we have to try to get on top of this pandemic.
MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly state the total contact tracers as 41,960. It is actually 41,122. We also say that four states meet their estimated need for contact tracing; only three do. Alaska does not.]
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