State to track web of COVID-19 contacts

Hiring, training 1,000 people to launch effort

THE STATE IS PLANNING to launch by the end of this month a much broader and sophisticated system for tracking anyone who has come in contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19 and convincing them to isolate, quarantine, or get tested themselves.

The effort will be led by Partners in Health, the nonprofit Boston organization that has gained international acclaim for going into Haiti and countries in west Africa to deal with the spread of infectious diseases. Now the Baker administration is enlisting the organization, along with Accenture and Salesforce, to take on the job of hiring and training a workforce of 1,000 people that will track down the contacts of anyone infected by the coronavirus in Massachusetts.

It’s a massive undertaking, considering the Baker administration is forecasting that the number of people infected in Massachusetts could range from 47,000 to 170,000. Some have suggested the tracing effort may be too late to the game, that it needed to move beyond its current rudimentary stages weeks ago before the expected surge in cases later this month.

Dr. Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer of Partners in Health, said her organization helped in the effort to track down the last person with Ebola in a remote section of Sierra Leone called Tonkolili.

“If they can do this in a place like Tonkolili, how can we say it’s too late in the Commonwealth?” she said. “It will be hard and we will be daunted. …Is it too late? It cannot be too late. We need to mitigate the suffering now.”

Mukherjee said the state has little choice. “We could just wait until 60 to 80 percent of people are infected and maybe then the level of immunity will start bending the curve downward,” she said. “I don’t want to wait that long.”

Mukherjee said the new employees will work remotely, using their phones to track down people identified as personal contacts by those who test positive for the disease. Those contacted will be told they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and what options they have going forward.

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, with Gov. Charlie Baker in the background. (Pool photo by the Boston Herald.)

She said the contact and tracing effort could also be used to do antibody testing, which would reveal whether a person with past coronavirus infection has developed enough resistance to the disease to return to their normal activities. “We may be able to get people back to work based on antibody testing,” she said.

Baker said the state Department of Public Health and local boards of health (supplemented most recently by college public health students) are capable of tracking down the contacts of those with COVID-19 when the infected total somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 people. But he said a much larger and sophisticated organization is needed when those infected run into the tens and hundreds of thousands.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“From where I sit, I view us as early in this game with respect to the issue of contact tracing,” Baker said. “I don’t think it’s too late.”

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, said current efforts are focused on containing the disease by focusing on social distancing and good personal hygiene. He said the contact and tracing effort will finally allow the fight to shift more toward reining in the disease more directly.

“It’s time to go on offense,” he said.