Philly hiring for COVID-19 contact tracing pilot program

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia has begun hiring people to keep track of who's been exposed to COVID-19, in hopes of preventing the spread of the virus. A contact tracing pilot project is underway, in advance of the region moving to the "yellow" phase of reopening.

Contact tracing has been a public health tool for decades, but rarely has it been attempted on the kind of scale that would be needed to control the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is created.

Health Commissioner Tom Farley said federal CARES Act funding includes $92 million for testing and contact tracing over the next 2 1/2 years. The city is using its own staff for this small pilot but is in the process of hiring supervisors, and then will hire front line staff so it can expand. 

Farley said contact tracers will need people skills more than technical knowledge.

"These are people who are going to have to interview folks, find out where they were, where they spent time, get information that may be somewhat private and then follow up and talk to other people who've been exposed and deal with people's fears and concerns and give them appropriate information," he explained.

As for how many will be hired, Farley said he isn't sure, because the city is also testing other models. He said they are also working with health systems and nonprofits on the project.

"Another model would be working with a health care provider organization, such as Penn Medicine, where they would interview their own patients and do contract tracing themselves," he shared. "A third model is we would partner with an organization that simply has a large number of staff or volunteers."

The goal is to identify everyone who may have come into contact with an infected person, testing them, isolating those who test positive and, in turn, tracing their contacts. The strategy has been used to control the spread of contagious diseases for decades and, in fact, is credited with the eradication of smallpox 50 years ago.