A coordinated national contact tracing effort to combat COVID-19
Americans are never going to be keen to allow the government to follow them around on their cell phones and figure out who they’ve been in contact with that way. (Which is a big part of the way it’s being done in South Korea and Singapore and some other places).
That’s despite the fact that a ton of private companies already collect a ton of information about our movements and habits. (And we allow that every time we sign a “user agreement.”)
But we wouldn’t want the government to have the power to constantly monitor us either.
So what does that mean? If this country wants to put up a robust fight against the Coronavirus, it’s going to have to do it at least partly the old fashioned way: person-to-person, cutting out data sucking machines and software in exchange for a real person’s voice.
Contact tracing involves figuring out where someone sick with the disease may have picked it up, and/or to whom they may have spread it further. So contact tracers attempt to recreate people’s days: events they attended, contacts they may have had with other people. And then those other people can be informed and monitored. Something like this has been used before with HIV transmission.
Would people in the U.S. find even this too intrusive? Like the government’s still getting too deep in their business, even if it isn’t tapping into their mobile devices? We don’t think so. Because people generally don’t want to be sick with a horrible and potentially fatal disease. Especially if some drugs are found that prove at least somewhat helpful in preventing the disease, but there aren’t enough doses for everyone at first. Just as there aren’t enough tests for everyone right now. Contact tracing could be key in helping determine who needs those drugs right away.
And doing the “detective work” needed to slow the virus that way means you need people to do it. Lots of people. Hundreds of thousands nationwide, according to a bipartisan group of public health experts. And the best thing about it is they can work out of the comfort of their own home and not put themselves at risk at all.
Weeks ago, when we called around to a bunch of public health and disaster relief experts, and veterans of health crises overseas, and asked them what could be done, they told us the best place to begin would be to immediately start training people in jobs that would help mitigate the spread, which would be essential over an extended period of time.
Thing is, so far, Trump’s shown no interest in coordinating this kind of effort. In fact, it may work against the President’s interests to do vigorous contact tracing, because it would invariably lead to finding more cases, which might otherwise not be reported. And the President seems very focused on keeping the numbers down. At least down enough that he can say he’s kept the U.S. within the lowest projected infection and fatality range possible. Even though he keeps bumping those numbers up for himself.
Trump and the Treasury and Congress so far are mostly focusing their efforts on supporting businesses, ostensibly so they can bring as much staff back on as possible as soon as people can get back to work in various places, or not even have to change their job status at all, even if their employer’s business has completely dried up. Kind of an on-the-fly version of a system Germany already had in place to deal with bouts of economic uncertainty (although perhaps not as severe as now), by guaranteeing jobs, although paying workers somewhat lower wages while they’re waiting for things to open back up.
But a lot of people: particularly in the restaurant, and hospitality, and entertainment business—and we could keep going—have pretty much all already lost their jobs permanently. And while there’s talk right now about a giant infrastructure bill, which would create construction jobs, there’s nothing we’ve seen on a jobs bill designed to address the most pressing societal needs of the day, both in terms of improving health outcomes and providing support for people who are newly unemployed.
For whatever reason, there really doesn’t seem to be much support for this kind of thing at the federal level. The CDC has published some guidelines on training for contact tracers, but that’s about it. (But why? This seems such an obvious thing to do!) So contact tracing is falling on underfunded and woefully besieged state governments.
Which is why most of the state-level initiatives involving contact tracing are being built and/or funded by charities. For instance, in New York, former Mayor and Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg is leading the charge, with his own money going in, as well as his expertise in technology. In Massachusetts, one of the first states to actively pursue contact tracing, another charity, Partners in Health, is at the forefront. And job listings are up for both initiatives.
Now, there is something to be said about keeping it local at least somewhat: it’s important for contact tracers to have knowledge of the local areas they’re working in if they want to be able to communicate most effectively, and get people the help they may need. But without a national framework, how’s everyone going to share information and data? Especially when people start traveling again, or congregating in large groups with friends or relatives coming in from out-of-state, which is bound to happen especially as the weather gets warmer.
Also, money is money. States don’t issue their own money. Only the federal government can print it up in great quantity.
There’s a need for a huge national jobs program. (Swift implementation of one might even help the President’s re-election chances.) There’s a need for a huge (and low-tech) contact trading effort. C’mon! How complicated is it to put 2+2 together?