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States are hiring thousands of coronavirus contact tracers—here's what to know about the job

Working from home due to social distancing
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In the past couple months, coronavirus has upended multiple industries, forcing tens of millions of people out of the workforce. But some jobs, like contact tracing, have become all the more necessary due to the pandemic.

Not only do experts predict an immediate need of at least 100,000 contact tracers in the U.S., but in some states like New York, contact tracers can make roughly $57,000 per year and earn a comprehensive benefits package, according to a job posting by the Fund for Public Health in New York City. The local government says it's also providing "all necessary equipment and internet connection" so that individuals can do this job from home.  

Though contact tracers have been around for decades, the increased demand for them as a result of Covid-19 has sparked a lot of questions about the impact these professionals can have on the pandemic. Below, CNBC Make It breaks down the details around what contact tracers do and what qualifications are needed before you can get hired to become one. 

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What are contact tracers?

Contact tracing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an essential part of a "multipronged approach to fight the Covid-19 pandemic." 

In the past, contact tracers have been used to help slow the spread of many infectious diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, says Dr. Emily Gurley, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She tells CNBC Make It that at the core of contact tracing, workers are "trying to identify people who have been exposed to someone who is infectious and you're trying to let them know so that they can change their behavior and not unknowingly or inadvertently infect anybody else."

In the case of Covid-19, she says contact tracers will be used to reach out to individuals who have tested positive for the virus. Because people with Covid-19 often don't show immediate symptoms and may not know they have the illness until they receive an official diagnosis, contact tracers will help the infected person remember and identify the people they have been in close contact with during their diagnosis period and the two days leading up to it. This will be done by asking questions about where the person has been and who they've been in close proximity to at work, at home or maybe in a car. This does not include, Gurley says, people you may have passed on the street or someone you said a brief "hi" to. Once those exposed individuals are identified, contact tracers will then make a list of those people and contact them. 

When contacting someone who has been exposed to the virus, Gurley, says it's important for contact tracers to not identify the infected person for privacy protection reasons. "You're not going to say, 'Oh, you know, this person has Covid-19 and you were around them,'" she says. Instead, she explains that contact tracers will say something like, "We just have to let you know that you have been exposed and here are the things that you need to do next."

Those next steps, according to the CDC, include contact tracers advising individuals to stay home and maintain social distance from other people for 14 days after they've been exposed to the virus. During this time, the exposed individual will be encouraged to check their temperature twice a day and monitor whether or not they develop any Covid-19 symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath. Contract tracers will then check in with these individuals periodically to ensure that these self-monitoring steps are being taken. In the event that symptoms do arise, it will be suggested that the person notifies a health-care professional for medical care. 

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Qualifications needed and how to get hired

Right now, Gurley says, the work of contact tracers is being done remotely, but it's a possibility that these positions could move to on-site call centers in the future. 

In order to meet the immediate demand of these roles, several states have put forth their own plans to ramp up hiring including California partnering with the University of California San Francisco to train up to 3,000 contact tracers a week from now until early July.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he's expected to employ 6,400 to 17,000 tracers statewide depending on the projected number of cases. To fill these positions, the state is requiring candidates to fill out an application and complete an interview before taking Johns Hopkins' free online "COVID-19 Contact Tracing" course. After the course, candidates will have 72 hours to pass the course's assessment before they become eligible to be hired for the role.  

Gurley, who serves as a lead instructor for the online course given by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that the hiring process for contact tracers varies by state and that interested individuals should contact their local health department to find out the application process as well as the amount of hours they will be required to work. She makes it clear that in order to take her course, you do not need a background in infectious disease or public health, and she emphasizes that the course was designed so that anyone with at least a high school education will be able to follow it. 

The course, which is made available to everyone for free via Coursera, is put together by Johns Hopkins in partnership with former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's Bloomberg Philanthropies. Individuals who take the six-hour course, Gurley says, will gain the basic knowledge they need to know about contact tracing before applying to the role through their city or state government. The course, which launched on May 11, has already seen more than 150,000 learners sign up within the first week. Right now, New York is the only state using the course as a requirement for hiring, but Gurley says the curriculum is general enough for other states to use it as well. 

The course, she explains, is broken up into five sections. These sections include the basic information about Covid-19 and how it's transmitted; the fundamentals of contact tracing, including how to identify a potentially exposed person; the steps involved in investigating cases and tracing contacts; the ethics of contact tracing, including respecting an individual's privacy; and the skills needed to be an effective communicator during the tracing process. 

"Ultimately, contact tracing is people helping other people," says Gurley, while emphasizing that good communication skills are a key part of the job. "And so to be able to do that well you've got to be able to build a rapport, including knowing how to talk to people but also knowing how to actively listen."

To help learners master this skill, Gurley says anyone who takes the course will hear examples of what a call should sound like in terms of the language and tone that should be used when talking with an infected patient as well as an exposed contact.

Moving forward, Gurley says, she hopes that contact tracers will remain a key part of the workforce and that state and local governments will continue to prioritize training individuals in this field. 

"If we had a more robust public health system, including people who knew about contact tracing earlier, we could have ramped these folks in more quickly and we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now," she says, while adding that the transmission of many Covid-19 cases could have been controlled. "So my hope is that we take a lesson from this and realize that public health is important. I would be very disappointed if we go through all this to build up these public health workers and then just dismiss them later on."

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