Some Bumps as NJ Launches New Contact Tracing Program

Some towns say it's more efficient to continue to trace their own cases instead of having state's 1,600 tracers take over

Camden County just kicked off a soft launch of the state’s new contact tracing program, CommCare.

“Two days ago, we went live. The state assigned us 11 cases that we did the case investigation and contact tracing on those 11 cases. It went smoothly,” said Paschal Nwako, Camden County’s health officer.

Camden County built its own contact tracing program while the Murphy administration worked to onboard CommCare along with Rutgers School of Public Health. The state will finally offer 1,600 new contact tracers by next week. Camden wants 25 of them. It takes training to tell someone they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

“In the middle of an interview, the person might decide to say, ‘I’m not saying anymore, I’ve said enough,’” Nwako said.

He warned that CommCare needs tweaking. It might randomly assign cases from Newark to tracers in East Orange, for example. Up until now, about 100 local health departments in the state did their own tracing.

Cases unexpectedly transferred

Kearny health inspector Kristine Schweitzer Budney logged in Thursday and found 86 cases unexpectedly transferred to CommCare.

“We’re like, ‘Oh my god, are they just going to take our cases?’ We’ve already been working on these cases, are they just taking them? What’s going on?” she said. “And I called the state and they said they had received many calls about this, this morning.”

CommCare gave the cases back. Kearny’s own contact tracing teams tracked down 90% of local cases and they’d prefer to continue without CommCare.

“I’ve heard the governor say that if you like your contact tracing and the town is doing it, we will leave you alone. So I assume his word is what he says,” Schweitzer said.

Jon Jackson heads Dimagi, the company that designed CommCare for New Jersey. He says the system’s troubleshooting bugs.

“With these rapid response teams, like all these things are going to be hard. I certainly wouldn’t claim this isn’t going to go without bumps, but we feel very confident that the state has a great strategy in place,” said Jackson. “We are working with the counties to understand the best way to assign contacts and the best way to transfer contacts between jurisdictions so that they can be most efficiently traced by the right team.”

Protecting personal information

Contact tracers will advise you how and where to quarantine after exposure. They’ll also ask for your cell phone number. Jackson insists Dimagi will protect personal info.

“We do not track you with any of the information that you’re giving us. There’s no app that you’re going to install from Dimagi or CommCare onto your place. It’s simply what you’re sharing with us directly through the case investigator or contact tracer,” he said.

He expects the system to be fully operational by the end of June. Murphy made contact tracing one basic requirement for reopening and Wednesday pushed back against criticism that it’s taken too long to set up.

“We have 900 people doing contact tracing as we sit here. So I will tell you, it won’t be that long. You guys gave us a lot of grief about where testing was at. It won’t be that long from now,” he said during Wednesday’s daily coronavirus press briefing.

But in Camden, Nwako says earlier could have made a difference.

“I believe, I personally believe, it could’ve saved more lives,” he said.

This post appeared first on NJTV News.