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COVID-19 Contact Tracing Has Launched In Mass. Here's How The Effort Is Going So Far04:01
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A woman looks at her phone while walking along Revere Beach. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman looks at her phone while walking along Revere Beach. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts has launched an effort to contain the coronavirus by tracking down everyone who has tested positive, identifying their close contacts, and asking both groups of people to isolate until they are no longer contagious.

As the first week of calls draws to a close:

  • Contact investigators reached 765 Massachusetts residents who've tested positive as of the end of the day on Thursday.
  • Those 765 people have identified more than a thousand close contacts, meaning someone they spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of during the three days before their positive test.
  • Contact tracers have reached 626 of those people.

Here are some takeaways from that batch of numbers.

First, people who are positive are identifying fewer close contacts than project organizers expected. That might be because many Massachusetts residents are staying home or keeping a safe distance from others when they're out. The number of contacts and the spread of the virus would likely increase when the stay-at-home advisory lifts.

Second, many of the people listed as close contacts aren't answering their phones when a contact tracer calls. Project organizers say they realize that many people may assume the calls are spam or a hoax. So, they're mounting a campaign around this message:

"Help us help you. To stop COVID in Massachusetts, answer this call," says John Welch. He's the director of partnerships and operations for the MA Covid Response project at Partners in Health, the nonprofit working in collaboration with the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker.

(Screenshot via Mass.gov)
(Screenshot via Mass.gov)

But securing a number that people wouldn't assume is spam has been tough. Welch says the major telecom companies agreed to let contact tracing calls go through — and not block them as spam. Massachusetts secured two prefixes for all contact tracing calls: 833 or 857. Ideally, the incoming caller will show up as “MA COVID Team.”

But here’s the kicker: Right now, that will only happen if the person receiving the call pays for caller ID. Massachusetts is asking Sprint, Verizon and others to waive caller ID fees and hoping phone owners will activate that feature. This seemingly easy step, setting up a reliable phone number, has been anything but.

So far, 348 people have completed training to become contact tracers — most are on the job. Another 200 new hires are in training this weekend. They are callers, supervisors and a team of a team of people who will help coordinate care and resources for people in quarantine or isolation. These resource coordinators hit the road Monday to help with medical assistance, food, child care or figuring out who's going to walk the dog.

One of the newly hired contact investigators, Kerry Robarge, says she is immersed in the pandemic with every call.

“When we reach out we find people in crowded living conditions or find large numbers of people in organizations who have all tested positive,” Robarge says. “We’re talking to people who are very scared.”

The project is not statewide yet. Partners in Health is tracing cases in 15 communities. Welch says it started with cities and towns that asked for help. Local boards of health have been doing this work on a limited basis since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Massachusetts in late February. But many quickly became overwhelmed.

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Partners in Health and its new army of tracers may be quickly overwhelmed, too, despite the fast pace of hiring. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts increased by 1,924 people every day, on average, this week.

“I do worry about a surge,” Welch says, “making sure that we’re hiring the right numbers of people and that they’re able to be productive on the phone while still being a compassionate, sympathetic ear.”

The Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers says 38 member centers plan to join the effort. They are close to a deal that would bring in roughly 300 staff, some of whom are health care workers who’ve been put on furlough by the health centers. Staff would work in teams of seven: one contact investigator who initiates and maintains a relationship with someone who is positive, five contact tracers who find that person’s close contacts and one resource coordinator.

By participating, “community health centers can focus on what they do best: leverage the trust they have built with their communities to engage people at higher risk for becoming infected with the virus,” said Jim Hunt, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

Massachusetts has posted a sort of “how to” for other regions or states interested in using contact tracing to contain the coronavirus.

In briefings this week, Gov. Baker talked several times about the promise he sees in contact tracing.

“We consider this to be a critical effort to not only slow the spread of coronavirus, but to help our commonwealth return to some semblance of normal life,” he said.

This segment aired on April 19, 2020.

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Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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