WASHINGTON - Johns Hopkins University has launched a new online course to make anyone a certified contact tracer in a matter of just hours. Contact tracing is a critical part to getting our economies back open safely and right now, state health departments are scrambling to hire.
Infectious Disease Physician and Johns Hopkins Scholar Dr. Amesh Adalja says as we head into the next phase of this pandemic, we know we're going to get more cases as social distancing is relaxed. But the key question will be can we keep the number of cases at a level that's manageable by our health care systems.
"In order to do that, we need tracing ability. When people get infected we have individuals who can interview them, find out who their contacts are, to contact them so we can catch these cases before chains of transmission begin to develop and it spill into our hospitals," said Dr. Adjala.
It's a complex process, but public health experts say the country can't safely reopen without enough contact tracers.
Johns Hopkins University is offering this five-and half hour course for free-- and for anyone who's interested. It covers the basics of contact tracing: How to interview people who've been diagnosed, how to identify their close contacts and the public health knowledge you need to support these folks in often emotional phone conversations.
"They may be wondering whether they can disclose the name of the person exposed or not. This course goes through what things they should disclose, what they shouldn't, the things they should tell people they have to do," said Dr. Melissa Marx, PhD and Johns Hopkins University Asst. Professor.
"Good contact tracers come from a variety of areas... they need to understand the virus, but they also need to relate to people," said physician Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
"Contact tracing isn't something that requires a lot of training, you can do it in this 5.5 hour course. This is really about interviewing people, knowing what questions to ask, knowing how to capture that information. You don't have to be an epidemiologist, we have volunteers doing it all across the country right now," said Dr. Adjala.
You do need a high school diploma to apply. Once you complete the course, you will be given a certificate that you can take to your state/local public health department that's hiring.
On Average, salaries pay around $35,000 a year-- roughly 25-35 dollars an hour.
In D.C. the Department of health is looking to hire about 900 contact tracers; so far they have hired 18 this week, and are hoping to bring on 200 over the next few weeks. But a spokesperson says even with a Certificate from Johns Hopkins, you still have to go through D.C. Health's training.
The Maryland Department of Health (MDH)'s contact tracing vendor National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has hired 500 contact tracers. The local health departments started with 250 contact tracers and have since doubled the existing staff to nearly 500, mostly by repurposing existing positions, such as school nurses. This brings the total number of statewide contact tracers to 1,000. Contact tracers hired by NORC can earn up to $35,000 annually.
There are currently 250 active contact tracers. The rest are in the process of being onboarded and trained, with plans to have most working by the end of the month or early June.
MDH has been aware that Johns Hopkins was developing contact tracing training and plans to share this with local health departments as another tool to use for contact tracing.
It’s work anyone can do from students to those who may be laid off and need the income. Just in the last two days since the course launched, Dr. Sharfstein says they have gotten 34,000 applicants.