Despite initial concerns, contact tracing thrives in Massachusetts

Community tracing is showing positive results in Massachusetts. Image courtesy of Omni Matryx from Pixabay

By Inyeong Kim
BU News Service

BOSTON – While cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts continue to rise, the state became the first in the nation to use contact tracing, reaching out to patients who may have been exposed.

In an effort to deal with the spread of the coronavirus, Massachusetts announced the COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative on April 3. Since then, more states have started community tracing on their own. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that aggressive contact tracing is needed to flatten the curve.

Gov. Charlie Baker said the state would start community tracing by reaching out to the patients who had been confirmed positive for COVID-19 and people they have been in contact with. The state is collaborating with with Partners in Health, an international health organization responsible for contact tracing during the 2015 Ebola outbreak.

“Massachusetts is the only state in the nation implementing this type of programming,” Baker said.

Since his April 3 announcement, other states including Maryland, Rhode Island and San Francisco have joined the community tracing collaborative.

The governor encouraged people to help with community tracing since it requires more than 1,000 staff members, including volunteers.

Staff will call people who have been potentially exposed to the virus and ask those people to stay in quarantine. The public health tool has been used for Ebola, cholera and other contagious diseases.

During the governor’s announcement, Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer of Partners In Health, said the company will focus on people who have mild symptoms or are “silently and unknowingly spreading the disease.”

“We want to shine a light on that,” Mukherjee said. “[And] humanely let them know that they are at risk and help them to isolate themselves.”

Mukherjee said because she lived with her older mother, she wanted to know if she had come in contact with anyone who had the virus to avoid the risk of infecting her mother and the rest of her family.

“In combination with testing, tracing is a really important part of ‘turning off the tap’ of patients,”  said Louise Ivers, the executive director at the MGH Center for Global Health. “Caring of sick patients is really important, but detecting and tracing is the way to reduce the number of cases.”

Partners in Health is currently hiring staff to handle community tracing. As the staff proceeds with calls, they will collect data on symptoms and provide information about quarantine procedures. Information and privacy is strictly treated as a private medical record, according to the state government.

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