Six weeks later The United States outperformed all other countries in the number of reported Covid 19 cases. Some states are beginning to loosen social distancing measures. When people slip back into close contact with each other, the country’s leading health authorities are concerned that the United States still has no systems to effectively test, track, and stop the spread of fatal respiratory disease. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified remotely before the Senate on Tuesday, warning of a resurgence when cities and states open up without being able to start new cases. “I am concerned that we will see small spikes that can lead to breakouts,”
Without a vaccine, suffocation of these spikes requires a legion of contact tracers, whose job it will be to find and prevent people from being exposed to the novel coronavirus and spreading it. Other countries, such as South Korea and Singapore, have already proven that this “test, track, isolate” strategy can work –if you have enough tests and enough tracers. The US doesn’t have enough of it either.
In the early days, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, there were only about 2,200 contact tracers for the entire United States. They would help suppress periodic outbreaks of tuberculosis, HIV, syphilis and other dangerous diseases. Now they’re all working on Covid-19 around the clock. Public health experts estimate that we need 100,000 to 200,000 more to safely reopen American society.
I wanted to know what it takes to become one of them. When the country’s first online coronavirus contact tracking course went online on Monday, I signed up and signed in.
As with testing and acquiring personal protective equipment, the federal government has left the challenge of recruiting and training an army of new contact tracers to state and local health departments. Without a national plan, epidemiologists from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have created a crash course that they hope will help public health agencies rapidly expand their workforce. Your first distant students will be thousands of people who have already applied to be a contact tracer in New York State, the American epicenter of Covid-19. “To be honest, we’ve never had contact tracking of this magnitude in our living memory,” said Emily S. Gurley, an epidemiologist for infectious diseases who runs the program. “Much of it is brand new.”
The free six-hour course, which teaches a mixture of virology, epidemiology, medical ethics, data protection and interviewing techniques, was opened for registration on the online educational platform Coursera. Although it is aimed at people who have the ambition to join the tracers, it is open to everyone. So on Monday morning I switched off an extra cup of AeroPressed coffee, turned off my Slack notifications, and settled in a sunlit corner of my couch to take notes on how to catch a coronavirus killer.
The course is divided into five modules, each consisting of video lectures and short tests that you must pass to get to the next one. First, an overview of Covid-19 was given – symptoms of the disease, how it spreads, and how different types of diagnostic tests work. When I saw slides on a calendar, Gurley’s voice in my headphones said that most people become contagious five days after being infected. If it takes a day or two for the test results to become available again, the contact trackers have a very tight window of opportunity to reach people and encourage them to self-quarantine. “It happens very quickly,” says Gurley in the recorded lecture. Contact tracers have to move just as quickly to break the transmission chain.