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The Emerging Contact Tracing Workforce

As the United States starts building a contact tracing workforce to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, some projections suggest somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers will be needed. State and local officials nationwide are mounting efforts to recruit, train, and deploy this group, essentially rebuilding the public health workforce that was whittled away starting in 1999, when Congress ceased funding the Public Health Emergency Fund.

The contact tracing public health work may be done by nurses, social workers, librarians, journalists, customer service representatives, or anyone with fact finding and interpersonal skills. An important additional consideration, however, is also that the group be diverse in order to appropriately and effectively reach out to diverse groups.

The last massive global contact tracing effort during the Ebola epidemic of 2014–2016 brought lessons in contact tracing, and experts say that the success of a contact tracing workforce hinges significantly on community trust. When community trust is low for contact tracers, important information (like close contacts) may be withheld, allowing  disease to continue to spread, while the converse is true when contact tracers have high community engagement.