Kentucky begins hiring hundreds to trace contacts of coronavirus patients

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday the state has awarded multiple contracts to hire about 600 people in coming weeks who will work to trace the contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19 as the economy eases back open.

The state has hired a point person to oversee the effort, but Beshear offered few concrete details about the state’s seven-month plan to monitor those with the new coronavirus

“Contact tracing, along with testing, is absolutely critical for our reopening and for being healthy at work,” the governor said, adding that the state’s ramped up testing and contact tracing efforts “is what makes us safe as we reopen.”

Kentucky earlier this month put out a request for proposals to hire, through the end of December, close to 600 contact tracers, investigators and social support connectors using $112 million in CARES Act funding. According to a state website, 15 vendors have so far been awarded contracts through this RFP to staff those positions.

Beshear did not say how many have been hired so far, or when the new virtual monitoring system will come online. Not all will be hired at once, he said, but some training will take place this week and next week.

Kentucky will work with Deloitte Consulting to help launch the statewide contact tracing effort and gather information about contacts from newly-diagnosed patients, according to the governor’s office.

Mark Carter, former CEO of Louisville-based Passport Health and Jewish Hospital, will lead the effort. Carter said, “we have to reopen the economy, but we also have to protect [Kentuckians] from another outbreak.”

He said Kentucky can have it both ways: reopening the economy and protecting people’s health is “not a binary choice . . . we can do it both, but we need to do it together.”

The announcement comes just days before Kentucky restaurants and retail stores are allowed to reopen at partial capacity and as houses of worship resume in-person services. Sunday and Monday brought 260 new cases of COVID-19 in Kentucky, bringing the statewide total to at least 7,935.

Part of the new contact tracing plan will allow those in quarantine or isolation, either from testing positive or having had direct contact with the virus, to log their information on an online database, which will be monitored by the fleet of new tracers. It will also involve checking their symptoms daily and ensuring they stick to their stay-at-home order before they’re allowed to safely reenter society.

State and local public health officials, including the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Steven Stack, have not shied away from warning Kentuckians that the contagious disease will spread as the economy gradually reopens, and measures like contact tracing will be used to try and contain it.

Often done by phone and beginning with a person who tests positive, contact tracing is a retroactive piecing together of everyone an infected person had direct contact with, both to notify them of possible transmission and to make sure, if they were at high risk, that they preemptively self-isolate for 14 days to halt any chance of further spread. It’s a job public health officials say is best handled by epidemiologists trained in how to coax sensitive, confidential information out of strangers.

These new tracers, whose contracts will extend through December, will act as the first line of defense to keep blooming infection rates at bay. Going forward, the new normal, as Beshear calls it, will involve the expectation that at any moment someone may receive a phone call telling them to quarantine for two weeks because they had contact with the virus. Contact tracers are the people who will be making those calls.

It’s a decades-old public health practice used to mitigate the spread of many communicable diseases, including hepatitis, tuberculosis, HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases. That’s why, up until now in Kentucky, local public health departments have been overseeing the bulk of contact tracing in their own communities.

The governor has struggled to coordinate with those departments, but they will need to merge their efforts rapidly with the newly-hired tracers.

Last week, Beshear acknowledged “one of the challenges is going to be making sure it works seamlessly with our local health departments,” adding that, “we are going to work really hard to integrate this with what you already do.”

He didn’t say Monday how those efforts will be integrated.

Until new staff are hired and trained, local public health departments, who’ve been managing virtually all of the state’s contact tracing efforts so far, will continue doing so.

Stack called Monday’s news an “enormous increase in workforce that we are going to have to deploy very effectively at a scale we’ve never done before.”

While social distancing, wearing a mask and frequently washing one’s hands are habits that should be “with us over the next year or two,” contact tracing is “what we have to do when, despite all our best efforts . . . infection still occurs,” Stack said.

And “it doesn’t work without you buying in [and] without your voluntary commitment to ensuring we are safe as we reopen,” Beshear said.