Coronavirus

What You Need to Know About New York’s ‘Monumental’ Contact Tracing Program

The initiative will be in coordination with New Jersey and Connecticut

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What to Know

  • New York has partnered with New Jersey and Connecticut to launch a tri-state contact tracing program, with help from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with the goal of preventing a future surge of COVID-19 infections, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday during his daily coronavirus briefing
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has volunteered to help develop and implement a regional contact tracing program
  • The program will be supported by $10.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies and developed in conjunction with Johns Hopkins' researchers

New York has partnered with New Jersey and Connecticut to launch a tri-state contact tracing program, with help from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with the goal of preventing a future surge of COVID-19 infections, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday during his daily coronavirus briefing.

The program with a baseline of 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 individuals will begin "in the coming weeks," Cuomo announced on April 30. Teams of 6,400 to 17,000 tracers statewide will work remotely with software to develop a secure database of information on the spread of the infection.

These are the four steps contact tracers will take:

  • Receive reports of positive COVID-19 cases from labs on a daily basis
  • Interview the positive patient to identify people they may have been in contact with over the past 14 days
  • Notify and interview each contact to alert them to their risk of infection and instruct those contacts to quarantine or isolate for 14 days to be sure they don't spread COVID-19 to others
  • Monitor those contacts by text throughout the duration of their quarantine or isolation to see if the contacts are showing any symptoms

Cuomo has stressed, time and time again, the importance of testing, especially as a means of safely and intelligently opening up local governments that have been at a standstill as they grapple with trying to mitigate contagion.

Cuomo said the key going forward is to test, trace and then isolate any positive cases. This will allow the tri-state to gather data that the region will then work into its "reopening calibration."

"You have to start with a large number of tests. We set at a goal yesterday to double the number of state tests. To go from 20,000 on an average to 40,000 -- that is just about the maximum capacity for all of the laboratory machines in the state," Cuomo said, further explaining: "Every positive, you have to go back and trace and the tracing is a very big, big deal. Once you trace and you find more positives, then you isolate the positives. They’re under quarantine. They can't go out. The can't infect anybody else."

But once you've tested hundreds of thousands of people, how do you trace their contacts to prevent an uptick in future infections?

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has volunteered to help develop and implement a regional contact tracing program, a "massive undertaking" that will propel the tri-state area toward reopening, Cuomo said.

Contact tracing is a proven public health tool which can profoundly help "box in" the virus, according to state officials. Countries, such as Germany, Singapore and South Korea, have used contact tracing effectively during the COVID-19 outbreak, and, as a result, those countries were able to re-open for business quicker and have experienced fewer deaths and lower rates of infection.

He said the program, which will be supported by $10.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies and developed in conjunction with Johns Hopkins' researchers, will be regional in its approach because "the virus doesn't stop at jurisdictional boundaries."

"This entire operation has never been done before, so its intimidating," Cuomo said. "You’ve never heard the words testing, tracing, isolate before. No on has. We have just never done this."

The effort will require putting together a "tracing army," Cuomo said.

As part of this effort, The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University will build an online curriculum and training program for contact tracers. Meanwhile, the New York State Department of Health will work with Bloomberg Philanthropies to help identify and recruit contact tracer candidates for the training program.

Bloomberg Philanthropies will also work with New York State to establish an expert panel to review the work of the program, and create a best in class model that other states can use for contact tracing.

We're not going to have people lose their life because we acted imprudently. I'm not going to do that.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

The massive effort includes a partnership with Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies. Resolve to Save Lives will provide operational and technical advising to New York State Health Department staff and assist in the development of call center protocols and digital solutions to expedite workflow and determine the best ways to increase community engagement.

Fund for Public Health in New York began its search for 1,000 contact tracers at the end of April. Those who are hired and trained will work as a part of New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's call center and they will document COVID-19 cases and contact information obtained from interviews.

The salary for the positions ranges from $57,000 to $65,000, according to FPHNYC.

Cuomo says any approach in New York City will also be coordinated with the rest of the state, along with New Jersey and Connecticut.

"It's best to do this tracing as a tri-state area. Why? Because that is how our society works. The virus doesn’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries," he said.

Contact tracing is a critical particularly to prepare for the possibility of a second wave of the virus, which happened with the influenza epidemic of 1918.

"If you're not ready for the second wave, that's the wave that's going to knock you down," Cuomo said Wednesday. Acknowledging some local officials feel pressure to reopen faster than others, the governor said he won't allow that in New York.

"We're not going to have people lose their life because we acted imprudently. I'm not going to do that," Cuomo said. "I'm not going to have the obituary of this period be, 'Well, they got nervous so they acted imprudently.'"

One of the nation's most widely watched virus projection models, the one relied upon by infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and often cited by Cuomo, revised its local death projections upward Tuesday for the second time in a week.

More people will die in the tri-state area, and the country, than previously thought before the pandemic ebbs -- and the fatalities won't level off for a longer period of time, according to the Gates Foundation-backed IHME model.

In its updated model, IHME projected New York's ultimate death toll to be 64 percent higher than it modeled just a week ago -- driven, in part, by a new effort to count New York City's "probable" deaths on top of the state's confirmed cases.

Last week, it projected New York would see more than 14,000 total fatalities by early-to-mid May. Now it says the Empire State could see up to 23,741 deaths through May 22.

The current IHME model assumes New York will have a triple-digit death toll every day through May 4, and a double-digit toll daily through May 13. As of Wednesday, the state had 15,302 fatalities, as Cuomo added another 474 names to the mounting toll.

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