CDC will boost states' coronavirus contact tracing efforts, Pence says

Extensive contact tracing is seen as a key piece of the COVID-19 puzzle.

April 20, 2020, 8:01 PM

During a private call with governors Monday, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Centers for Disease Control will be sending teams to all 50 states and territories on a 12-18 month rotation "dedicated exclusively to coronavirus surveillance."

"We're going to deploy specific coronavirus teams on a 12-month, 18-month rotation to each and every state and that information should be reaching your state -- those personnel -- this week," Pence told governors, according to a recording of the call obtained by ABC News.

The move, if executed, would be one of the first large-scale federal actions to boost coronavirus contact tracing efforts in the states.

"So we're in the process of working with your health departments ... as the vice president said we already have 500 individuals embedded," CDC Director Robert Redfield told governors during the call. "We probably have another hundred working on about 22 outbreaks, but we're going to augment this very substantially. Literally thousands of more individuals starting to get placed in the states working with your state public health leadership to determine the right mix."

PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, April 17, 2020 in Washington.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, April 17, 2020 in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

"And over the next -- literally days and weeks ahead -- will be expanding that substantially, both using CDC personnel and using contracting mechanisms that CDC's developed to get additional personnel into those states so that we can maintain a strong containment posture as we go through the reopening," he said.

Pence said during the White House coronavirus briefing Monday evening that the teams sent to each state would likely be 10 to 12 people, but many states have concerns they do not have the manpower to do this.

The longtime public health practice of contact tracing -- involving making calls to sick individuals and anyone they have come in contact with in order to isolate them and prevent the spread of the virus -- is seen as a key piece of the puzzle to limit the scale of future outbreaks when social distancing measures are eased.

"Even if we only assume 10 close contacts per case, this could take six hours per case at minimum," Nate Wardle of the Pennsylvania Department of Health told ABC News. "This would take 7,200 man-hours per day conducting contact tracing. With a 12-hour workday and realizing that you cannot do a 24 hour day and call people while they are sleeping, this would take 600 individuals a day dedicated to simple contact tracing."

In interviews, public health experts and state and local health officials identified contact tracing as a key piece of any plan to reopen the economy, with many calling for more federal investment and involvement in the effort.

"It has to be a coordinated and well-funded effort. It can’t be spotty," said Jennifer Pinto-Martin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine, and executive director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives.

"It's old-school investigative work," Lee Cherie Booth, a nurse in Salt Lake County, Utah, who has been working as an investigator for 6-7 days a week since early March, told ABC News.

Utah, along with Massachusetts, quickly set up coronavirus contact tracing programs beginning last month, to supplement the work of local health officials who usually use the process to track food poisoning and sexually transmitted diseases.

Other states debating how to reopen are preparing to expand their own programs, and are even considering ways to build programs to put to work workers laid off in the coronavirus-induced downturn.

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