On the road to reopening, contact tracing will be essential. Tracers help to track those who may have been exposed to coronavirus, tracing others they may have been in contact with along the way and helping to ensure safety for all involved.
For individuals who have found themselves out of work over the last few months due to the coronavirus outbreak, contact tracing is becoming an unexpected job opportunity. Contract tracing entails calling close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 patients, providing them with information about the disease and encouraging them to self-quarantine for 14 days to potentially avoid infecting others and possibly a discussion about getting tested.
Public health officials say contact tracing allows for a slowdown of spreading the virus without having to implement long-term mass stay-at-home orders, as coronavirus infections in the U.S. top 1.8 million.
"It's sort of a safety valve to prevent reopening turning into a big problem," says Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He estimates as many as 150,000 tracers will be needed nationwide to ensure a more cautious return to normal life.
To help enlist tracers across the country, Johns Hopkins has created a free online course for contact tracing. The class takes some six hours to complete. Sharfstein said more than 250,000 people have enrolled so far and 70,000 people have passed. The course covers how the virus is transmitted, the ethics of contact tracing and confidentiality, as well as interviewing techniques through both lectures and role-playing for trainees.
"We may not have a medicine that is really effective. We don't have a vaccine yet. But there are actually things we can do to fight the coronavirus together and contact tracing is one of them," he said.
Hiring is in the hands of state and local health departments, where the Johns Hopkins course is sometimes a part of the training process. Tracing positions can be done on both a volunteering and paid basis, Sharfstein said, and pay varies based on the level of tracing and seniority of the tracer. The roles can include arranging food deliveries for those quarantining and even helping to find hotels for those who can't safely quarantine at home. Salaries can range from $40,000 to $70,000 a year, and positions can last months or a year depending on a location's need.
In Paterson, N.J., the team of disease investigators, including contact tracers, has increased to 55 from 25 and its work is paying off. Daily cases were as high as 260 at the height of the outbreak, according to Dr. Paul Persaud, public health officer for the city, and have since fallen to around two dozen a day. While there have been some concerns over invasion of privacy and reluctance to share information with tracers, Persaud said most have been cooperative with the process.
"It's for the greater good, it's for helping. This can be a life-threatening disease for some people," he said, adding the days can be long: "If each contact tracer is having 20 cases per day, and one of these interviews can take 45 minutes to an hour or more, we were doing 16, 18, 20 hours per day doing this. It's very tedious work."
Sharfstein said it's also key to have tracers that are representative of the population at large.
"There are going to be roles for people at all stages of their life. So you could imagine students picking this up. And you could imagine retirees picking this up," he said. "I think it's really about their interest in doing it and their ability to get on the phone and make a connection to someone, really show that you care about them and then help them and the people they care about protecting themselves."
—CNBC's Betsy Sring and Anna Robaton contributed to this report.