Baker: ‘Contact tracing’ program key to stopping COVID-19 spread

BOSTON — Governor Baker said Thursday ‘contact tracing’ is the key to getting us back to a normal world.

“From our point of view, that’s a must-do with respect to anything that looks like a reopening of the Commonwealth or a move toward opening the economy,” Baker said.

In the two weeks since Massachusetts launched the ambitious contact tracing program with Partners in Health, Baker said PIH hired 176 workers, with hundreds more to come.

“One of the reasons we put together this tracing initiative is because we really do believe in order to give people comfort and confidence, that we’re doing all we can to contain the virus,” Baker said.

Massachusetts is the first state in the country to launch a tracing program.

Contact tracing involves workers identifying COVID-19 patients, contacting them, then trying to locate everybody that patient came into contact with, so those people can then self-quarantine.

“This has been used for a long time,” said Dr. Matt Fox, an epidemiologist with the Boston University School of Public Health.

“One of the most recent examples where this was used really effectively was in the large Ebola outbreak that happened in West Africa where contact tracing was used quite effectively,” he said.

Fox said contract tracing works best when the period where a person can transmit a virus coincides with the period when a person is having symptoms.

But that hasn’t been the case with COVID-19.

“With coronavirus it’s a little bit different in that you can have transmission before symptoms occur, but still we would like to identify everybody who has been exposed and try to get those people isolated,” Fox said.

The other challenges, according to Fox, include the size and density of the Boston population, privacy concerns, and people’s reluctance to share personal information with the government.

But Fox said the concept of contact tracing can a useful tool.

“Contact tracing is an important part of the strategy by which we got out of these complicated lockdowns, but it is not the only piece, and by itself, isn’t going to be the answer to all of our problems,” Fox said.

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