After COVID-19 first swept through New York City, officials launched the Test & Trace Corps — arguably the largest contact-tracking effort of its kind in the country.
The corps tracks so-called “close contacts” of known COVID cases to prevent individual outbreaks spiraling out of control. The program recently registered its 1 millionth close contact – a major milestone that conveys the scale of its outreach work.
But winter is coming, which means more time spent indoors and at home. The reopening of businesses and schools means more and more sources of infections to track, and the delta variant continues to stubbornly hang over the city.
Dr. Ted Long, a Chief Physician and Test & Trace Executive Director, joined WNYC host Michael Hill to discuss these threats and what Test & Trace Corps has learned since its launch in June 2020.
Michael Hill: To track down those 1 million closed contacts, the corps made nearly 2.5 million phone calls and sent more than 2 million text messages. But contact trackers do much more than inform people when they are exposed. Do you want to briefly explain the corps’ three principles?
Dr. Ted Long: I would say that the most important thing about our Test & Trace Corps in New York City is that we have put together a group of contact trackers, all of whom are New Yorkers – who saw the devastation that was happening in their communities. They heard the call to help, they responded, and they joined the corps. So when you get a call from someone in New York City, no one knows what you’ve been through or what you’re going through.
It’s someone from your community – who has lived through the same horrors you had to live through in March and April 2020, and who has joined the team in New York City to help. What they will do with you is that they will ask you if you have been diagnosed or have a positive test for COVID, who could you have revealed when you were contagious?
It’s a sensitive area, but a million times now we’ve been able to identify close contacts or New Yorkers who have been exposed. And it gives us a unique ability in New York City to really offer to help in terms of how we can help you isolate or quarantine to protect our cities.
Hill: Winter is coming, which means more time is spent indoors and at home, and according to recent Test & Trace data, New Yorkers are most often exposed to COVID by someone living with them.
How common is it? [In an earlier interview on Monday, Dr. Long said this applied to 64% of cases in a recent week]. Do Test & Trace offer services to prevent this type of transmission?
We have detailed information about where people get infected in New York City, which we review, and how we have shaped our program over time.
We are very flexible. For example, I myself am a primary care physician. I practice in the Bronx – I have that all the time [the] COVID [pandemic]. I have diagnosed my patients with COVID. I have helped them through it.
The first question I get from all my patients I’ve been diagnosed with COVID is, “Hey, Dr. Long, this is the virus I’ve heard about in the news. So what should I do now?”
In New York City, because we know it’s hard if you live in a multi-generational home with close accommodations, we have a free hotel program. We pick you up for free. Drive there for free. Give yourself free food or even free medical care while you are there.
We also have free resources that we connect you via contact tracking, e.g. Free home test for anyone exposed to COVID in New York City [and] free home vaccinations for all New Yorkers. We associate you with monoclonal antibody treatments, which can be life-saving.
And we also have a very unique part of our program.
Based on what I have heard from my patients, it is sometimes that you feel you have to go to work to support your family even though you have been exposed or even sometimes if you have been diagnosed with COVID. In New York City, we have an answer to that. We have a direct cash assistance program that others do not have, so we can actually pay you to make the right decision to protect your family and your community.
Hill: Still a lot of exposure outside the home. And what is most common there?
So what we see in our data is outside the home, we see an increase in exposure at gatherings. This is of course not shocking as the city continues to reopen. But that is why we must continue to make contact tracking as a way to connect people to resources.
So if you have been exposed at an assembly in other cities, you can be informed about this if there is a contact tracking program and this is where it would end.
But here in New York City, if you’ve been exposed, we’ll offer you all the resources I’ve just talked to you about in terms of helping you really quarantine and meet you, no matter where you are. make the right decision to protect your community and your family.
Hill: Let’s turn to schools here for a minute: How does equity come into play when it comes to testing and contact tracking? I ask because we see some public data showing that COVID testing is more common for schools in high-income areas.
Well, I can speak to this from the perspective of our elementary schools in New York City, and what we do there is actually very simple.
We do a 10% sample every week at every public school. So that’s the same 10% at each school. If you look at last year, we did more than 1.5 million tests with the same percentage at each school that we were going to, and this year we have already done over 100,000 tests right at the beginning of the school year.
Tray: We hear from parents who by word of mouth find out about COVID cases in schools. A parent told us that a principal informed them of a case at their school, but they only heard from Test & Trace 10 days later.
How long does it typically take for a Test & Track to communicate with close contacts? And does it depend on the size of the exposure event?
Long: On the same day that we were made aware of a case, we have written letters in advance, which we work with the principals to send out so that they do not have to put anything in their own words. It’s all written with appropriate public health guidance, and families always get it the same day.
Sometimes, however, it is at night, because sometimes we learned about cases at night, but we always have, our priority is to make families feel safe in knowing that when their children go to school in the morning, they would have already heard if their children were exposed and needed it for quarantine or whatever was going on with their school.
It’s always the same day we hear about it. [Separately, a Test & Trace spokesperson said in general including outside of schools, “for those that complete intake, the majority of cases (92%) are reached within 24 hours.”]
From Test & Trace we usually call the same day or the following day. And if there are specific situations where we might have had a wrong number for a family or something like that, uh, you can actually always encourage that feedback, all 212-COVID19, we would love to hear it.
[Editor’s note: On the flip side, phone calls from NYC contact tracers will always come from a phone number beginning with 212-540-XXXX or 212-242-XXXX. The tracer can also provide a special code that you can use to verify their existence via the city’s“Validate My Tracer” tool.]
Hill: I know so many people working towards the day when we no longer have a pandemic in our daily vocabulary and COVID-19 may be a thing of the past.
What happens to Test & Trace when the pandemic finally cools down. And do you feel optimistic about the city’s future?
We have had an incredible team of people developing these skills, these experiences of how to connect with you and your community because they are from your community. We can not let all that go by the wayside. So actually, I’m really excited about what we’re going to do.
We must form a new public health corps [which was launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio on September 29th].
Or we take all of our contact trackers and the skills they have developed and turn them into community health professionals so anyone who wants to stay on our team can join me in my primary care practice to help me take care of me of my patients as they leave the four walls of my office, which has always been my dream in primary care.
In fact, in my opinion, this will really set New York City up as the country’s public health capital, which we can only do because of everything we’ve done with contact tracking in the fight against COVID.