What it takes to be a COVID-19 contact tracer in NYC

By: ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Out-of-work New Yorkers looking to secure employment as New York City COVID-19 contact tracers — tracking the spread of the virus in an effort to contain it during the city’s recovery phase — will need what some might see as a surprising prerequisite.

According to the job posting, qualified candidates must have the “ability to understand the concepts of institutional and structural racism and bias and their impact on underserved and underrepresented communities.”

“Structural racism and inequities have left communities of color vulnerable to many chronic conditions—which makes a crisis like COVID-19 even more deadly and inequitable,” Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene told ABC News. “An understanding of these factors has to be a core part of the response.”

In New York City, the epicenter of the United States’ COVID-19 outbreak, and where nearly 20,000 people have died of the virus, COVID-19 infections and deaths have disproportionately harmed the black community. Some 28% of the city’s deaths have been African Americans despite being 22% of the population, according to state data.

A robust contact tracing program is viewed to be one of the keys to re-opening both New York City as well as the country as a whole after weeks of business closures and strict social distancing measures. To tamp down flare-ups of the virus as restrictions are lifted, identifying and isolating infected persons and their contacts are critical.

Experts believe a small army of contact tracers (around 100,000) — able to act quickly, precisely and with cultural sensitivity — will be needed at a cost of around $3.6 billion to get the job done.

“Given the magnitude of COVID-19 cases and plans to eventually relax mitigation efforts such as stay at home orders and social distancing, communities need a large number of trained contact tracers,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a recent post. “The time to start building the trained workforce is now.”

Several states have already states have already started the process, although qualifications are uneven.

In New York, in addition to understanding how racism fits into the COVID-19 pandemic, candidates should have health-related professional experience and computer skills and the ability to show empathy toward distressed individuals. Being able to speak multiple languages in addition to English is a plus.

The listed salary for the position is $57,000.

New York City is hiring 1,000 contact tracers, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday. Since the positions opened, there have already been at least 4,000 applications for the new roles.

Those 1,000 tracers are part of what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred to as the “army” the state is hiring to reach out to individuals who are newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients.

A contact tracer is “a detective, investigator, in the public health space,” Cuomo said during an April press conference. In conjunction with former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Johns Hopkins University, the state plans to hire between 6,400 and 17,000 contact tracers to stem the spread of COVID-19.

New York City’s contact tracer qualifications go beyond what Massachusetts, among the first states to roll out an extensive contact tracing program, lists for qualities candidates should have if they want to apply to be contact tracers in the state.

Although the job posting does mention that candidates should have “excellent interpersonal skills” and the “ability to interact professionally with culturally diverse individuals during a time of crisis and distress,” there’s no mention of race in the posting.

This handout illustration image taken with a scanning electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow) also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19isolated emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab.

Massachusetts candidates need to have a high school diploma, but neither specialized health education nor professional health experience are prerequisites for applying. The posting is listed by Partners in Health, a Boston-based health nonprofit that’s working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and local health departments.

More than 36,000 applicants applied for the 1,000 contact tracer positions, which pay $27 per hour. Roughly 900 of those slots have been filled, according to Partners in Health. In addition to contact tracers, the organization is also hiring for adjacent roles, such as care resource coordinators, who help people in quarantine get food and health care.

St. Louis County, Missouri has closed its search for contact tracers due to “overwhelming popularity.” Like Massachusetts, St. Louis only requires possession of a high school diploma or GED equivalent and says “use of a personal telephone, personal computer and other personal electronic equipment will be required.” It pays $15 an hour.

Preferred qualifications include “an understanding of health and disease” and “the ability to interact professionally with culturally diverse individuals during a time of crisis and distress.”

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