Hey America, What Happened to Contact Tracing?
Unused tech tools and a coordination vacuum between state and local health departments can help explain why contact tracing is not going well
In mid-June, the latest study to model the effects of public health interventions on the ebb and flow of Covid-19 infections affirmed what public health experts have long suspected: Contact tracing is central to controlling this pandemic. Using a model based on real-world social contact data from the United Kingdom, the study’s authors found that even if people socially distanced themselves to only a moderate degree, a vigorous contact tracing effort could reduce viral spread by two-thirds and ultimately snuff out transmission.
The United States has been providing federal funding for contact tracing since the Department of Health and Human Services announced its first wave of financial support for the strategy in late April. But the implementation of contact tracing programs has unfolded in wildly uneven ways across the nation: In some states, such as Washington, California, and Massachusetts, massive programs employing thousands of workers are reaching enormous numbers of Covid-19-infected people and their contacts, while in others, public health leaders are still dithering over such a program’s best design. And the size of states’ contact tracing efforts do not always track with slowdowns in their infection rates.
If experts are correct, nearly 100,000 contact tracers are needed to conduct adequate and efficient contact tracing for Covid-19 in the U.S. Although in flux, the current number of contact tracers at work is likely well below that figure. Last week, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield testified that about 27,000 or 28,000 people were doing contact tracing work across the country at the beginning of June. (As of June 26, there’s no update on the current number of contact tracers.)
A coordination vacuum between state and local health authorities
Behind differences in the success of state contact tracing efforts are variations in communication and public health governance structures that long precede Covid-19.