NJ fields 230 new contact tracers, but they’re not always welcome

Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled a statewide program called the Community Contact Tracing Corps. So far, 230 tracers have been trained by Rutgers School of Public Health and onboarded to help call anyone who gets perilously close to a COVID-infected person. It’s one of the basic tools Murphy required as a precondition to fully reopening the state.

“Our contact tracers are being immersed in the culture of the communities in which they will be working, and their curriculum specifically teaches them the vulnerabilities to COVID-19 of our diverse populations,” Murphy said during his daily press briefing on Wednesday.

“Once we train the 1,000 contact tracers, they will be deployed by the New Jersey Department of Health to county and local departments of health throughout the state,” said Dr. Perry Halkitis, the dean of Rutgers School of Public Health.

Some tracers will work where they live. By tracking down an infected person’s social contacts, tracers can offer quarantine advice and facilities for people who might be infected.

Deandrah Cameron, a newly-trained tracer who works in Newark, explained.

“Contact tracing is one of the most efficient ways to contain the virus and ensure the safety of our residents,” she said.

Tracers sign privacy agreements. They’ll input data into CommCare, a statewide online platform that rolls out June 29. But some local health departments that did contact tracing during the pandemic’s spring surge have voiced grave concerns about this newly-trained corps of outsiders.

“We really want our own people, our community people, to help. To be successful we really really need measures that help us increase capacity, and I’m not necessarily sure a statewide temporary workforce is the way to move forward with that,” said Megan Avallone, a regional health officer in Westfield.

Avallone’s also with the Public Health Associations Collaborative Effort, which sent a letter to Murphy asking for better local funding. Avallone just wants to keep her Westfield team of 13 tracers because the job’s getting even harder now.

“Things are opening, people are able to go back to work, there’s social events happening. We’re finding that that’s a really difficult message to deliver and it doesn’t seem to be statewide, maybe even nationwide, as well-received as it was months ago,” Avallone said.

In Paterson, the health department’s 55 tracers tracked down 260 cases a day at the pandemic’s height. Tuesday they had just 11, but Paterson Division of Health Director Paul Persaud’s team knows its territory and citizens.

“One of the advantages we had was we were one cohesive unit here in the health department, we could address issues throughout the day,” he said.

As for the new Community Contact Tracing Corps.

“I think it’s going to work for some places, especially where they’re short and they don’t have enough personnel to do this. How well it’s going to work, I don’t know,” Persuad said.

Meanwhile, corporations trying to suppress the virus could also look for consultants. In Atlantic City casinos will also participate in contact tracing. They have guest records and surveillance cameras to help pinpoint contacts, but Hard Rock asked AtlantiCare for help.

“As either an intermediary between the contact tracer and the organization, or even work with them, with the Hard Rock along with the contact tracer, to help do some investigations,” said Debra Fox, AtlantiCare vice president of strategic planning.

As New Jersey gets fully back to work, health officials will watch closely for signs of an outbreak with contact tracers ready to deploy.