The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and 50 other organizations to create the Southwest PA COVID-19 Contact Tracing Consortium. The consortium is the first of its kind to support COVID-19 contact tracing in the commonwealth.
Without a vaccine, contact tracing is essential to contain the pandemic in Pennsylvania and prevent another large-scale outbreak, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“We have had a lot of experience organizing the region when there is a tight time pressure for important health issues,” explained Karen Wolk Feinstein, JHF’s president and chief executive officer.
Contact tracing begins when a person is identified as having been infected with COVID-19, explained JHF’s Chief Policy Officer Robert Ferguson. Contact tracers reach out to everyone that has come in contact with the individual identified during the time frame when they may have been infectious, urging those people to self-quarantine.
Feinstein pointed out that contact tracing is not simply making phone calls and cautioning people about their risks. Those contacted may have questions about childcare, job status, their mental health, how to get groceries and other concerns. JHF, she explained, helps the tracers know where to get those answers.
“You need a lot of organization and coordination,” she said. “Not only are we recruiting and providing ongoing training for the people who are appropriate for this, but we have to provide support and backup. A lot of these aren’t simple calls. People have a lot of questions. This is a huge operation with a lot of moving parts. Our role is to make sure we have those pieces in place.”
As part of the Consortium, JHF is helping to recruit and train tracers for almost all of southwestern Pennsylvania, Ferguson said, including Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Green, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The Allegheny County Health Department is part of the consortium as well, Ferguson explained “but as the lead organization, it is coordinating contact efforts within the county.”
The JHF has a history of helping with this type of service, Feinstein explained. She pointed to the foundation’s efforts during the early days of HIV, its assistance communicating information about the Affordable Care Act and health care exchanges, and Medicaid’s Community Health Program, as examples of its previous work.
“The thing that we’re best at is the organization and coordination to make sure that the training is there and it gets to the right people, to make sure we are recruiting the right people and that they are not, in effect, bumping into each other,” she said.
That recruitment is ongoing and will take place with the Consortium’s partners through colleges and universities, community action agencies and other organizations, according to Ferguson.
In a press release, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine called contact tracing an “essential function of public health, as we work to identify those who have come into contact with COVID-19.” Levine said that she was “encouraged by the partners who are taking part in these efforts and looking forward to the work that will be done in the southwest region.”
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation is “an essential partner” that helped to “quickly mobilize the initial membership of the regional consortium as part of the efforts to conduct contract tracing for all COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania,” Levine said in a statement to the Chronicle.
The work of recruiting and training contact tracers has already begun.
The Consortium, Ferguson said, is a great example of “people in southwestern Pennsylvania coming together and pulling their own assets and resources to respond to this moment in time, and lead.”
While there is an immediate focus on the coronavirus outbreak currently affecting the region, Ferguson has an eye toward the future as well.
“There’s a huge amount of time and effort being directed toward COVID-19 and it’s really important that we focus on it,” he said. “At the same time, we should be thinking about how to ensure the infrastructure doesn’t go away when people have to divert their attention to other public health crises.”
Anyone interested in working as a tracer can apply at serv.pa.gov. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.