Contact tracing effort scaled way back

Dr. Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer at Partners in Health, said the organization has drastically scaled back its contact tracing workforce amid a sharp decline in COVID-19 infections.

On CommonWealth’s Health or Consequences Codcast, Mukherjee said Partners in Health has gone from 1,900 employees to 470. Working under a contract with the state of Massachusetts, the organization contacts those infected with the coronavirus and tracks down all those who they have come in close contact with (within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes) to urge them to get tested and quarantine. The program also employs resource coordinators to help those who need food, health care, or other services in order to shelter and recover or quarantine.

Mukherjee said the organization is now right-sized for the job it needs to do. “We think that will allow us to properly handle 300 cases a day in addition to what the local boards of health are handling,” Mukherjee told John McDonough of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Paul Hattis, recently retired from the Tufts University Medical School.

State officials have been vague about the employee reductions at Partners in Health. As of June 18, a spokesman said the nonprofit had 1,212 employees, which was described as “peak staffing.” If those numbers were accurate, the nonprofit cut 742 employees in about 15 days.

Despite the dramatic downsizing, Mukherjee said the organization will probably have to grow again in the future to cope with a second surge of cases. “I think in Massachusetts we will see a second wave,” she said. “There is still a virus circulating in our community.”

Mukherjee praised Gov. Charlie Baker for hiring Partners in Health and launching the state’s large-scale contact tracing effort. She said the only way to stop the spread of the disease is through an aggressive program to track down the contacts of those infected and give them the help they need to prevent the spread of the disease.

Initially, the effort was connecting with only 40 to 50 percent of contacts, but Mukherjee said the percentage is now up to 90 percent, thanks to broader public outreach, caller ID improvements, and the creation of a system that allows contacts to call back their tracers.

“This thing is like whack a mole, so if you do really well here but not over here then it’s going to pop up over there. I think we’re the only state, as far as I can see, that has done this at scale with these kind of public health metrics,” she said.

“What I have learned from 25 years of epidemic control is you only can do it with a comprehensive approach – prevention, treatment, care,” she said. “If you only do one thing, it’s not going to work.”

Massachusetts public health officials on Monday reported 157 new cases of COVID-19 and 15 deaths. Those numbers are good, but in a number of other states cases are on the rise. Mukherjee said leadership on COVID-19 has varied greatly from state to state and been almost entirely absent at the national level. “This can’t be a state by state thing,” she said.

Mukherjee also said she is not confident a COVID-19 vaccine will be developed soon. “I personally don’t see a vaccine right around the corner,” she said. “I think we’re going to be living with this for a very long time.”

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL

State Rep. Frank Moran is being treated for throat cancer. He says his prognosis is good and he is still running for reelection. (Eagle-Tribune)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, in a Globe op-ed, slams Mayor Marty Walsh’s plan for a city fund to tackle racial equity, which she says will compete with a “community-led” effort to do the same thing.

Many Western Massachusetts towns still lack cell phone service between towns. A $10 million earmark in the state’s information technology bond bill would study and expand cell service in rural areas. (MassLive)

The head of the Massachusett Native American tribe says it’s time for Braintree High to drop its Wamp mascot, which is illustrated as the profile of a Native American man with a feathered headdress. (Patriot Ledger)

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards wants to change the city’s budgeting process to give councilors more say in the process. (Boston Herald)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that the country is “still knee deep” in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as cases soar in the South and Sun Belt. (Washington Post)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

WinnCompanies says it will suspend all evictions at the 6,500 units of housing it owns and manages across the state through the end of the year. (Boston Globe)

Charter boats and fishing tournaments can now resume in Phase 3 of reopening. (Gloucester Daily Times)

The Boston Business Journal lists all 150 Massachusetts companies that got more than $5 million in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Business may not have been at normal summer levels, but it was still fairly brisk on Cape Cod over the holiday weekend. (Cape Cod Times)

US Sen. Ed Markey joins the union representing Stop & Shop workers to ask the store to reinstate pandemic-related bonus pay for grocery store employees, which the store stopped paying July 4. (MassLive)

For those old enough to remember Steve’s Ice Cream in Somerville and later Herrell’s, the Daily Hampshire Gazette has the story of Judy Herrell, who now runs the ice cream business in Northampton.

EDUCATION

Overnight camps were quietly removed from Phase 3 of the reopening plan, leaving camps and their families trying to figure out alternatives. (Telegram & Gazette)

Harvard says all of its undergraduate courses this fall will be delivered online. (Boston Globe)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says international students enrolled in college programs where courses are moved entirely online will not get visas and will not be allowed to enter the country unless they transfer to a program offering in-person courses. (MassLive)

Though college will look very different this fall at many schools, the tuition bill will not. (Boston Globe)

ARTS/CULTURE

Boston is making $1 million available to small and mid-size arts organizations. (WBUR)

Berkshire Theatre Group gets the green light to perform a full production of Godspell under a tent in Pittsfield. (Berkshire Eagle)

TRANSPORTATION

The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority is losing about $25,000 per month because of COVID-19, but for now those losses are offset by federal CARES Act funding. (South Coast Today)

A report issued by the business group A Better City says the MBTA’s approach to COVID-19 may actually spur more riders to take to their cars. (State House News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Among the seven people killed in Boston last week was a 34-year-old woman who was an innocent bystander at a late-night fireworks show that turned into a shootout. (Boston Globe)

Mayor Marty Walsh has added three members, at the request of Boston City Council president Kim Janey, to a task force reviewing the police department’s use of force policies. (WGBH)

Shots were fired inside the South Shore Plaza in Braintree on Friday night and a 15-year-old girl was injured. (Enterprise News)

MEDIA

Ken Doctor reports the Knight Foundation was considering a bid for the bankrupt McClatchy Group, owner of the Miami Herald and other papers, but ultimately decided not to pursue it. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

Media Nation has a memo from Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory on promoting racial diversity on the staff and in coverage.

Globe reporter Mark Shanahan took in 24 hours of Fox News to get a sense of the thin band of information President Trump relies on for his main sources of news. (Boston Globe)