How Care Coordination And Support For Isolation Can Help Curb The Pandemic : Shots - Health News If we want life to get back to normal in the U.S., public health experts say we can't just rely on COVID-19 vaccines. Other tools like contact tracing and care coordination are crucial too.

Groceries And Rent Money: Why Support For COVID Isolation Is More Important Than Ever

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Even with vaccinations running ahead of schedule, public health experts warn it will take more than that to get us out of this pandemic. Other public health tools like contact tracing can help speed the way to lower case numbers and prepare us for future outbreaks. As NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports, contact tracing has a secret weapon to help make it more effective and equitable. That secret weapon is called care resource coordination.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: If you get a call from Karina Acuna of the public health department in Pima County, Ariz., she won't be surprised if you're caught off guard.

KARINA ACUNA: I think almost every call that we have, you know, it starts off - it's like, why are you calling, and how do you have my number?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The people she's calling have either just been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have just found out from a contact tracer that they're a close contact of someone who's sick, so they need to quarantine. It can be a scary time. They're often stressed or sick. She walks them through what they might need to stay home for days or weeks - grocery deliveries, prescription medications, money for rent, cleaning supplies. Then she looks through her list of 95 local agencies and programs and connects them to those resources.

ACUNA: It always ends up being a good call for them because they're getting the help that they might need or didn't even know that they had available to them.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For many people, following public health guidelines to stay home isn't feasible without this kind of help. And that's not just a personal problem. If someone who's infected leaves their house, the virus has more opportunities to spread, and that makes it a public health problem. Care resource coordinators like Acuna provide a kind of temporary safety net that helps people stay nourished with chicken soup when they're sick with COVID-19 and helps families take care of each other by providing them with masks and cleaning supplies. They can even help people find a place to stay.

SHARONDA WRIGHT: I have had to help a client where they were actually being evicted, where the marshal was at the residence, putting them out. And they were needing shelter and needing financial support and trying to gather their belongings at the same time.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Sharonda Wright, a care resource coordinator in Fulton County, Ga., connected that COVID-19-positive person to transitional housing.

This work is happening all over the country. NPR surveyed state health departments in December in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the nonprofit Partners in Health. The survey found that the vast majority of contact tracing programs do ask about social needs, but there's a lot of variation in what that looks like, from just a basic question in a phone call - do you have everything you need? - to dedicated specialists like Wright and Acuna.

Crystal Watson of Johns Hopkins oversaw the survey with NPR. She says it's understandable that not all health departments have been able to fully invest in this.

CRYSTAL WATSON: I mean, it's a really hard thing to do, especially when health departments are understaffed to begin with and then pulled in a million different directions.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Watson is hopeful that the American Rescue Plan, with $48 billion for testing and contact tracing and $8 billion for a new public health workforce, might mean more investment in care resource coordination. She says this work helps address big concerns about equity. Black and Latino and Native American communities have been hardest hit throughout the pandemic.

WATSON: That's really what this care resource coordination component does. It helps get resources to the people who need it most and make this response less inequitable.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Getting the details of this process right, though, is really key to making it work. Dr. Shada Rouhani of Partners in Health collaborated on the state health department survey with NPR and just published an analysis of the results.

SHADA ROUHANI: Right now we see that only just over half of programs are asking questions about specific needs, like do you have enough food, or do you need a safe space to isolate in?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's important because when people are sick or stressed, they might need help thinking through everything they'll need, and 1 in 5 programs just hand out a hotline number. Rouhani says some people just can't follow up and connect with the food bank or the utility assistance they need.

ROUHANI: Particularly if there are language barriers, if that person has limited access to technology or even something as simple as limited phone minutes to make that phone call.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In other words, there's room for improvement, and Rouhani argues it's not too late for health departments to invest in contact tracing, even as the vaccine campaign continues to ramp up. Watson of Johns Hopkins agrees. She says just because the vaccines are here doesn't mean they can conquer the pandemic all on their own. There's still a need for contact tracing.

WATSON: I think it is a time to really focus on getting us to exactly where we want to be before we face another fall and winter with this virus.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Even after the initial vaccine rollout, there may still be COVID-19 outbreaks, she says. And contact tracing with care resource coordination can help tamp down those small fires before they spread.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

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