‘Are you doing okay?’

Jennifer Peltz

NEW YORK (AP) – Joseph Ortiz headed for the home of a stranger who tested positive for COVID-19, unsure how his unexpected visit would go.

The person hadn’t answered phone calls from New York City’s contact tracing programme, a massive effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading by getting newly diagnosed people to identify others they might have infected before those people spread it further.

Ortiz was out to try to bring the person into the fold. “It’s a mixed bag. You never know what you’re going to get,” Ortiz, 30, said as he approached the person’s Queens apartment building this month. “Sometimes you have people who are really appreciative… They like that we’re out here trying to end the pandemic so everyone can get back to normal.”

“But other times, you might have a client who slams the door.”

Such is the on-the-ground work of what appears to be the biggest contact tracing effort in any United States (US) city, with over 3,000 people making calls, knocking on doors and checking in on people’s health and sequestration.

Contact tracer Joseph Ortiz uses his tablet to gather information as he heads to a potential patient’s home in New York. PHOTO: AP

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, has credited the effort with “so far, amazing success”. After a knotty June start, the city said it’s now meeting its goal of reaching about 90 per cent of all newly diagnosed people and completing interviews with 75 per cent.

But in the programme’s first two months, more than 11,000 infected people – over half of all new cases – didn’t provide any names of others they might have exposed. When people have identified contacts, tracers have finished interviews with six in 10 of them, short of the city’s goal. The city has yet to say how quickly it’s connecting with people or what it’s gleaning about potential sources of exposure.

Comparing US state and city contact tracing programmes is difficult because they vary widely in what they release, but some public health scholars say the numbers that New York reports are promising. Still, some outside experts suggest New York should get more from the initiative.

“The way you hear the metrics and the progress described, it’s like their job is done after making these contacts. But it’s not mission accomplished, at all,” said Dr Denis Nash, a City University of New York epidemiology professor. He feels the city is missing opportunities to assess people’s success at isolating themselves and scout exposure patterns to learn “where the holes in the safety net are and assess how big they are.”

Programme director Dr Ted Long acknowledges there’s more work to do. But Long, a physician and executive with city-run hospital system Health + Hospitals, estimates the tracers’ efforts have prevented thousands of coronavirus cases and helped keep new infections, hospitalisations and deaths at relatively low levels. New confirmed cases topped 6,000 on some days in April; they now average about 200 a day amid far more testing.

“That’s what tells me that what we are doing is working,” Long said.

Contact tracing is a time-honoured public health technique, but the pandemic is putting it to a gruelling new test around the world. The stakes are particularly clear to the US city that has suffered more COVID-19 deaths than any other but wrestled its outbreak into relative control late this spring.

Making calls from her East Harlem apartment, tracer Maryama Diaw said she strives to “be sensitive and compassionate and actually talk to the person as a human being, and not just read off a script”.

When a woman was crestfallen to hear she’d tested positive, Diaw recalled, she temporarily put aside her planned questions to ask, “Are you doing okay?”

“We talked for a little bit, like person to person,” said Diaw, 25, a graduate student in public health. “That was really rewarding because I actually helped someone through what could be a very difficult day for them, and I know that she left the call with the resources that she needed.”

New York’s tracers also offer assistance that can include food deliveries and free hotel rooms.

The Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated the country will need nearly 100,000 tracers. By the end of July, the total was over 41,000, according to an NPR and Johns Hopkins University survey with data from 45 states, excluding some local government programmes.

The US tracing has been hampered by factors including coronavirus resurgences, a patchwork state-by-state approach and stubbornly slow test result turnaround times, experts said.

“We’re not in a good place,” said Lori Tremmel Freema, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. But “New York City’s a bright spot.”

The city already had a couple of hundred people tracing HIV and other infectious diseases before the pandemic. But COVID-19 took the work to “a scale that is unprecedented”, said Deputy Health Commissioner Dr Demetre Daskalakis.

New York City appears to have the biggest city-level programme. By comparison, 2,600 tracers are covering nearly all of massive Los Angeles County. Chicago said it has over 200 tracers now and expects the number to grow to about 800 by mid-September. Houston said this spring it was hiring 300.

New York state, which has 2,000 tracers working outside the city, has reached about 90 per cent of newly diagnosed people and nearly 88 per cent of contacts, state official Larry Schwartz said; it’s unclear what percentage completed interviews.