On the front lines fighting the coronavirus: I took a COVID-19 contact tracing course

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Credit: USA Today

In the Before Times, there were only about 2,200 contact tracers for the whole US, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. They would help squelch periodic flareups of tuberculosis, HIV, syphilis, and other dangerous diseases. Now they’re all working around the clock on Covid-19. Public health experts estimate we need 100,000 to 200,000 more to safely reopen American society.

I wanted to know what it takes to become one of them. So on [May 11], when the nation’s first online course in coronavirus contact tracing went live, I signed up and dove in.

Every day, hospitals and clinics report any new positive tests to their local public health department. Teams of tracers work their way through these lists in shifts. They’ll try the phone number listed on that person’s health records first. If that doesn’t work, they can get more creative—looking at lab reports or in other databases available to the health department. Sometimes, the tracers are the first ones to let people know they’ve tested positive, so they usually spend some time answering questions and checking in on their symptoms.

Related article:  If we use it correctly, artificial intelligence could help us fight the next epidemic

Contact tracers might be working the phones from home, but they really are on the front lines. If you’re interested in becoming a contact tracer for your area, or just want to know more about the process, you can take the Johns Hopkins course here.

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