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New York City is set to hire 1,000 contact tracers in May, disease detectives who'll be tasked with tracking down the city's coronavirus infections, and warning people when they might've been exposed to COVID-19.
City councilman Mark Levine told Business Insider that such a system is essential to reopening the city, "because otherwise you can't really have confidence that people you see around you in public aren't contagious."
This spring and summer, a new corps of disease detectives will be on a mission to hunt down every case of the coronavirus in New York City and get the illnesses off the streets.
Their job will be to let anyone who might've been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case know: you could be next.
"We can't reopen safely unless we have a comprehensive system of contact tracing in place," Mark Levine, chair of the city council's health committee, told Business Insider. "Because otherwise you can't really have confidence that people you see around you in public aren't contagious."
On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the plan for the city's so-called "test and trace corps," which is staffing up now, and should be operational by June, with an initial corps of at least a thousand tracers, and goal of testing 20,000 New Yorkers per day for COVID-19 by May 25.
"We know testing and tracing works; we know isolation works," de Blasio told reporters on Friday. "When you combine these strategies with the progress we're making already because of social distancing, because of shelter in place, because of face coverings, it's that one-two punch to really push back this disease."
The city is set to hire 1,000 contact tracers by the end of the month
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New York City is currently hiring 1,000 people to help with the project, and de Blasio said he expects that number to blossom to 2,500 "by early June," before the city eventually employs between 5,000 and 10,000 contact tracers to make calls, and when needed, knock on doors, warning people about their possible coronavirus exposures.
The contact tracing this summer in New York will be on a scale the city, and country, has never quite seen before.
"We're talking about building something as big and complicated as a major city agency, like the fire department," Levine said. "It's an almost unprecedented undertaking."
Some people will need to quarantine in hotels, to keep the outbreak from spreading out of control in cramped quarters
Right now, with more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases being diagnosed in the city every day, it's not possible for the city to track down every single confirmed coronavirus case, and let the people who had sustained, meaningful contact with those individuals during the previous two weeks know they might be at risk of getting sick.
"We have too many new infections every day to cover everybody," Levine said. "But, I'd like to see us launch this as soon as possible and begin to develop and refine the model and begin to isolate and quarantine to the extent we can."
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The city is also readying 1,200 hotel rooms, which will be available by June for the testing and tracing project. The hotel rooms are to be used as safe shelters for people who can't properly self-quarantine at home.
Levine said that the hotel rooms would be paid for by the city, but "with significant reimbursement from FEMA."
"If you live in the kind of home or apartment where there's enough space and you can be separated from other people in the home the right way — people are doing it all the time — that's fine, but there are many, many New Yorkers who live in such crowded circumstances that they simply couldn't isolate properly," de Blasio said of the hotel program.
"It is not just, 'Here's a hotel room, have a nice day.' It is, 'We're going to get you to a hotel room, we're going to transport you, we're going to make sure that you have food, we're going to make sure you have medical care, we're going to make sure you have laundry, whatever it takes.'"
The hope is that such an isolation strategy might help prevent the virus from spreading like wildfire in crowded homes, like what happened recently in Singapore's migrant housing, where social distancing is near impossible, and laborers sometimes live 20 to a room.
The city's 'elite' public health contact tracers won't oversee the new corps, though
The city's new COVID-19 contact tracing project is, somewhat oddly, not being overseen by the New York City Department of Health, an agency which has done, and been widely lauded for, all of the city's previous contact tracing efforts, for diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS to Ebola and Hepatitis A.
The health department even contract traced for some of the city's very earliest confirmed coronavirus cases, in March, but on Friday de Blasio announced that the city's Health and Hospitals corporation would be taking over the task of hiring the new contact tracers.
"It's just baffling that we would cut the health department out," Levine said of the move. "It really defies understanding and frankly, it's quite worrisome."
De Blasio seemed to suggest that Health and Hospitals might be able to hire contact tracers more quickly than the health department, and more efficiently work with both hotels and hospitals, to get people the care they need.
"Everything at health and hospitals has been based on speed, and intensity, and precision, and they've done an amazing job," the mayor said, an argument against the health department that Levine called "demonstrably false."
"They can contract quickly, they can hire quickly, they were hiring," Levine said. "That all got stopped last week. We lost a week already, and now all the hiring and contracting has to go through a much more bureaucratic entity. This will make us less nimble."
The mayor said the health department will still be "bringing their expertise" to help the city's new disease detectives out.
"The disease detectives are sort of the ultimate expression of this work, but there's only a few hundred of them," he said. "They're a small elite corps. This tracing apparatus, as I said, we're going up to 1,000 then to 2,500 then with the likelihood of going to end up between 5,000-10,000, it's a totally different situation."
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