Angela Beck: Contact tracing – Use volunteers or paid public health corps?

May 14, 2020
Written By:
Nardy Baeza Bickel

Tracking people's location and coronavirus. Image credit: iStockFACULTY Q&A 

ANN ARBOR—The House of Representative plans to introduce a bipartisan bill that would create a National Public Health Corps similar to AmeriCorps that would hire hundreds of workers to help conduct contact tracing as the U.S. moves to reopen its economy.

Angela Beck

Angela Beck

Angela Beck is a clinical assistant professor of health behavior and health education and director of the Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center at the School of Public Health. She discusses the idea of such a workforce.

Why are officials focusing their efforts on tracing to reopen the U.S. economy? Isn’t it too late, since the virus is widespread?

Some communities do not yet have widespread virus transmission so having contact tracing capacity in place will help ensure transmission doesn’t get worse. For the communities where the virus is widespread, using other public health measures, physical distancing in particular, to help “flatten the curve” is key to containing the virus.

When it is safe enough for the economy to reopen and physical distancing rules are relaxed, we’re likely to see another spike in the number of cases. Contact tracing will be very important to help prevent resurgence of community transmission of COVID-19. We don’t want to go backward and have another wave of cases prompt a need to reinstate distancing measures.

Some states, like Michigan, are putting together a volunteer base to help trace cases. Should we not try to get tracing through volunteers, for free?

We are fortunate in Michigan to have thousands of people volunteer to assist with this important public health effort. However, lack of investment in the public health system broadly across the country is partly why response to this pandemic has been so challenging. State, territorial and local public health departments are doing an incredible job but they need sufficient human and financial resources to contain this emergency. A strategy that solely relies on volunteers jeopardizes the long-term success of stopping the pandemic.

Also, contact tracing is a trained skill. It’s time intensive and tedious. Service to the community is wonderful and we really need this volunteer surge capacity in the short term, but COVID-19 is likely to be with us for some time. Workers should be compensated for their efforts.

The House is looking to create a National Public Health Corps. What do you think would be the pros/cons of this initiative?

The pros of the initiative are it could provide the surge to the public health workforce that we need to test, trace, track and eventually vaccinate. It provides an opportunity for those who have suffered job loss due the economic downturn associated with the pandemic to retrain and redeploy as public health workers. The challenge is always in the details. For this initiative to work, it will need to be well-coordinated so workers are efficiently deployed to health departments in local communities. Strengthening the workforce and infrastructure is long overdue. Any strategy to address public health system capacity should not only seek to address COVID-19 but should also provide a sustainable path for longer term support for public health.

Are there any other programs/issues we should be looking at right now to either expand/change to meet current health care demand?

In terms of other programs to surge the workforce, loan repayment programs for public health that incentivize work in state, local and territorial health departments could help strengthen the public health infrastructure. Expansion of loan repayment programs are being considered for nurses, physicians and other clinician providers through the National Health Service Corps and similar programs. We should continue to seek innovative ways to flex and surge the workforce now, as well as build the workforce pipeline for the future.