The number of people working to stop COVID-19 outbreaks from spreading is far from the level needed in most states, according to a new NPR survey and analysis. Find out how your state is doing.



We have an update now on contact tracing in the United States. At the start of the pandemic, we were told that contact tracing was vital to contain it. Health officials needed to identify who was in contact with an infected person and get them to isolate themselves.

Earlier this year, NPR revealed how few contact tracers states were hiring. Now the update comes via the latest exclusive contact tracing survey by NPR in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has the results.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Our survey found that the United States has more than 50,000 contact tracers for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit. That's an increase from the last survey, which found around 40,000 contact tracers, but...

CRYSTAL WATSON: It feels stagnant.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who oversaw this survey.

WATSON: I don't see a lot of evidence that we have a new push or renewed interest in trying to get us there to prepare for what we might see this winter.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Public health experts think the country is likely to see new surges as the weather gets colder. And contact tracing is the kind of program that's hard to scale up quickly when transmission starts escalating out of control.

WATSON: We're already seeing cases tick up across the U.S. and in Europe, and it is concerning.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Currently, case numbers are climbing in North and South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin, which was one of many states that indicated it's planning to hire more contact tracers. Elizabeth Goodsitt from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services wrote in response to the survey that they are, quote, "maximizing limited resources in attending to the surge in number, as well as the increased complexity of cases."

Another state, Minnesota, responded that it had the resources to run its program for now, Watson says, but added...

WATSON: There are questions related to sustainability and ongoing funding.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There has yet to be significant federal investment in contact tracing despite some proposals in Congress. That lack of investment has meant the country's efforts fall far short of the workforces deployed to contact trace in some East Asian countries, says Danielle Allen. She directs the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. And early in the pandemic, she was part of a group that advocated for 300,000 contact tracers nationwide.

DANIELLE ALLEN: We just - as a country, we have not been able to transition in that kind of rapid way to build out on that scale.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Our survey shows, instead, the country continues to inch up its contact tracing workforce while financial resources are stretched to the limit. Going forward, we'll likely keep inching up, she says.

Allen and other experts note that contact tracing isn't a silver bullet. When transmission is high, it becomes much more difficult for the process to keep the spread of the virus in check. But it's still valuable, she says, in part because of the data that can come from tracking how the virus is spreading through a community.

ALLEN: If you can work out that you have a whole cluster coming from one specific kind of activity, well then you know, like, that's what you shut down. You don't have to shut down everything.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In our survey, the vast majority of states say they're gathering this data, but fewer than half are making the data public on a government website. Watson of Johns Hopkins hopes that more states will follow suit so that data from contact tracing can be used not just for allocating resources and informing policy decisions, but for helping regular people make decisions about their lives - like whether to go to a restaurant, or the gym, or whether it's safe to send kids back to school.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.