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Can Contact Tracing Be Effective in NYC?

MEGAN CATTEL, HOST INTRO: This week, Massachusetts and San Francisco are increasing efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19 through something called… contact tracing. It’s a method to track everyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. But could it be effective in New York City? This morning, I spoke with Dr. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health, from his home in Hopewell, New Jersey. I asked him what’s needed to make contact tracing effective in the U.S. at this point.

RAYMOND: This is a virus that is very quick to spread to other people. And so it would require large teams of people to mobilize to do contact tracing that is commensurate with the amount of disease in the community. If this was just a very slow moving disease, You'd might have enough people to follow up on contacts. But this is not. And so it's kind of overwhelming right now, I think. Generally speaking, we probably need 10 times the staffing to actually be able to do that in this context.

CATTEL: I know that Boston and San Francisco this week are ramping up contact tracing efforts seeing if they were in contact with anyone who was infected with COVID-19. What do you think would be needed for New York City to do the same and have it be effective?

RAYMOND: The initial step is to start with people you know have the virus and work from there to the people that they can help you identify that should be contacted. To do that, with the number of cases that, (laughs) Sorry, it's not funny, but you know, it just seems overwhelming. To do that with the number of cases that are already existing would be really difficult. I think the best bet when resources and teams of people are put in place, start with new identified cases moving forward.

CATTEL: Once the numbers start to slow, hopefully slow down in New York City. And the cases become hopefully more manageable for public health workers and hospitals. Do you think that contact tracing will be implemented then?

RAYMOND: I'm hopeful as we move to a less intense phase of hospitalizations and diagnoses and deaths, that resources will become available to put more effort into the front end of contact tracing. One of the points is to inform people so they can take proper steps to isolate themselves in addition to seeking out care and treatment. We always say in epidemiology, the best way to combat a disease is to consider yourself infected and take precautions not to infect anyone else. If people are told Yes, you did have contact with someone who had COVID-19. That will help people make better decisions around isolation and seeking care and treatment.

CATTEL: I do want to ask a little bit about privacy concerns a lot of New Yorkers and Americans have about contact tracing.

RAYMOND: You have to position it so people understand that it's a benefit to them first and a benefit to the community second. I think we need to make it a win win for people. I would like to see that one of the incentives for contact tracing is, we'll be able to give everyone who wants an antibody test. And I think that might go a long way to helping people realize we're looking out for their health. We would also be doing a really good service to understanding how far along in gaining community immunity we are.

CATTEL: So knowing that Boston has gotten 1,000 people to do contact tracing there. And San Francisco has ramped up efforts to have 100 people do contact tracing in that city. How many people are needed in New York City to do contact tracing effectively?

RAYMOND: I mean I think that what Boston and San Francisco are doing is probably early and, you know, I'm sure they're gonna add more staff for contact tracing, but I think for a population as large as the 18 million-plus In New York City, that you're going to need an army of contact tracing staff around 20,000 or more.

CATTEL: Do you think that's possible?

RAYMOND: (HEAVY SIGH) I don't know if it's possible tomorrow, but hopefully it's possible over time.

CATTEL: Thank you so much for being here this morning.

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