Contact tracing is viewed as an important tool for managing COVID-19’s spread in the United States if done in a timely fashion, but a scarce supply of workers with contact tracing training has hobbled efforts to keep the disease in check in many regions. For a growing number of workforce development and public health leaders, this shortage has highlighted a promising opportunity to connect workers displaced by the pandemic with jobs and to attract a new – and diverse – pool of talent to health careers.

A new report by National Skills Coalition, Add to Contacts: Curbing the Pandemic and Creating Quality Careers Through Contact Tracing,  recommends six key steps to build and support a contact tracing workforce while simultaneously creating quality, long-term career pathways in health-related fields:

  1. Recruit, train, and hire contact tracers from local communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, particularly communities of color.
  2. Set standards for contact tracing jobs to ensure they create economic opportunity for workers and their families while also building a talent pipeline for other health-related occupations.
  3. Fund and support industry partnerships to develop career pathways to quality health careers that will remain in the labor market after the pandemic.
  4. Provide contact tracers with career pathways training grants so they can continue their training and transition to their next job. 
  5. Create supportive service funds that provide contact tracers with time-limited financial assistance.
  6. Provide transparency on the training and job placement of workers in contact tracing jobs.

In California, Kaiser Permanente recently committed $63 million to expand and strengthen contact tracing in the state via a plan implemented by the Public Health Institute’s Tracing Health program. According to Inside Philanthropy, the funds will enable the hiring, training, and management of teams of contact tracers in high-need and targeted communities with a focus on recruiting bilingual or multilingual tracers from within these communities to ensure a culturally competent workforce.

In Baltimore, The Rockefeller Foundation is part of a 20+ member public-private partnership that has pooled resources to pilot the Baltimore Health Corps. The Corps will recruit, train, and employ more than 300 un- and under-employed residents to serve as contact tracers and care coordinators for Baltimore City residents. The pilot is utilizing the free contact tracing training curriculum developed by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Jhpiego is adapting it to create a complete suite of learning materials and also making an optional 100-hour Community Health Worker training and certification available to participating workers who are interested in pursuing longer-term careers in public health after the 12-month pilot ends. In addition, every staff member will receive legal, financial empowerment, and mental health support to overcome any long-term barriers to a successful career.

The pilot also provides skills training that can be transferred to other careers. Contact tracers are trained in Salesforce, a customer relationship management (CRM) software that many health departments are using for contact tracing, but also is a widely used software in businesses and non-profits.

We spoke with Emilia Carrera – a Senior Associate with The Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative – about lessons learned from Rockefeller’s involvement with the pilot thus far. Among her key recommendations:

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of trust. Contact Tracers must quickly establish trust with the individuals they’re speaking with – often by phone – to capture accurate information and do their jobs effectively. Many of the groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19 – including Black, Latinx, and Native American communities – have been let down by government and public institutions in the past and may be skeptical of their efforts to engage around COVID-19. Recruiting Contact Tracers who are from the communities they are contacting, and providing training in how to relay news of possible exposure, can help build trust so that contact tracing and care coordination efforts can be effective.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. During an emergency scenario, it’s important for philanthropy to have a timely response, and this is especially true given the speed at which the COVID-19 virus can spread. Leverage existing infrastructure that already exists in your community, such as initiatives that train and employ Community Health Workers or Care Coordinators.
  • Coordinate with public partners to maximize your reach and ensure aligned values. In Baltimore, philanthropy is working closely with the Baltimore City Health Department and the Mayor’s Office for Employment Development. By coming together early in the crisis, the partners were able to design and deploy an approach that centers equity and advances both public health and workforce development goals.

Addition supporters of the Baltimore pilot include the Abell Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bank of America, the Baltimore Community Foundation, Baltimore Gas & Electric, the Baltimore Ravens, Bloomberg Philanthropies, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, CARES Act federal funding, the France-Merrick Foundation, the Goldseker Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Hoffberger Foundation,, The Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, OSI – Baltimore, the PepsiCo Foundation, the Raunch Foundation, the Stulman Foundation, the T. Rowe Price Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Labor. Some of the implementing partners include The Baltimore City Health Department, Jhpiego, the Mayor’s Office for Employment Development, Baltimore Corps, HealthCare Access Maryland, and the Baltimore Civic Fund.