NJ’s contact tracer ‘army’ to begin boot camp next week
TRENTON — When the daily coronavirus data is released Wednesday afternoon, it’s all-but-certain that the state will reach a milestone – more than 1 million COVID-19 tests conducted on state residents.
Testing was an important step on what Gov. Phil Murphy calls “the road back.” One of the next hurdles to clear is contact tracing, a decades-old public health strategy that will need to be expanded and have a technology update to respond to a 21st century pandemic.
Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, said college students will start the training program next week, with a goal of several hundred in the “initial army of contact tracers” doing public-health detective work.
“The emphasis of the curriculum is on communication and interviewing skills using real talk, everyday language, not clinical language,” Halkitis said at an Assembly joint committee hearing Tuesday.
If someone tests positive, a tracer will interview them about their contacts over the past two weeks, then get in touch with those people and let them know they should get a COVID test.
“That person has to be within 6 feet of the individual, 6 feet or less, for at least 15 minutes,” Halkitis said. “We walk by people all the time. We spend two seconds by them. Are those people potentially infected by us? Likely not.”
Halkitis said the goal was to create a curriculum that is modern, specific to New Jersey, with variances for different settings. A number of people said at the hearing that it’s important to make sure tracers have a connection to the communities where they’re trying to obtain personal information.
“We all have our very unique communication barrier, who we’re going to pick up the phone for, various issues of trust,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer. “I think we all know the environment that we’re in, so we do not trust everybody who calls that phone.”
“You have to have people they trust or people that talk to them, that understand the language, whether it’s street talk or Spanish or whatever language they speak,” said Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson.
“When you call someone in my community, and I live in Camden, if it’s not a familiar voice, they don’t want to hear it and they’re not going to participate,” said Assemblyman William Spearman, D-Camden. “And it’s even worse in the Latino community, especially when you have people who are undocumented who will not trust anyone who reaches out to them.”
Some organizations of local health officials say the state isn’t sufficiently including them in coronavirus response planning. Stanley Weiss of the New Jersey Public Health Association said the state is routinely refusing to share data.
“There is an opportunity being wasted here in New Jersey and elsewhere to learn what need to know, to prepare for what must be done,” Weiss said.
Edward Boze, the chief innovation officer in Paterson, where the 7,600 positive cases exceed the totals in 13 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, said efforts to map the local outbreak have been stopped because the state won’t let the health department share those details.
“So that in the morning, you know, you could check if in my census tract, am I in a red zone for COVID? Because maybe if I am, maybe today is not a good day to allow my child to play with the child next door, to have a play date,” Boze said. “That would drive behavior.”
Paterson health officer Dr. Paul Persaud worries such maps could be counterproductive.
“We need to be very careful that we don’t transfer what we call hot zones to zones of discrimination where people say, you know what, if a firefighter or police have to respond to that area, I’m not going there, that’s a hot zone. My response time may not be the same,” Persaud said.
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.