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State teams with UAA to expand contact tracing workforce

Alaska officials initially hoped to train 500 contact tracers by June 30 but so far 177 individuals have completed the training through July 10; another 480 were registered and 990 people had expressed interest in becoming a contact tracer. (Peter Hamlin/AP)

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Alaska Health Department officials are partnering with the UAA Center for Rural Health and Workforce to quickly train 500 contact tracers needed to help limit coronavirus outbreaks.

Rural Health and Workforce Director Gloria Burnett said Division of Public Health officials were searching for help to expand the state’s coronavirus case contact tracing capacity this spring and the UAA center had the resources to assist.

“We got this call in mid-May and just hit the ground running from there,” Burnett said. “The metaphor I’ve been using is it’s like we’ve been building a ship while we’re recruiting our crew while we’re charting our course and kind of hitting storms along the way.”

The Center for Rural Health and Workforce had access to a $95,000 supplemental federal CARES Act grant, which the state matched to help fund development of the contact tracing curriculum. Center staff — not being trained public health experts — were able to call on others in the UAA College of Health when drafting the 12- to 16-hour online training course.

About $2.1 million has been allocated to hire contact tracers, which is what the center is focused on now. The training program is largely stabilized, according to Burnett.

State officials initially hoped to train 500 contact tracers by June 30, she said, and 177 individuals had completed the training through July 10; another 480 were registered and 990 people had expressed interest in becoming a contact tracer.

“We have a lot of completers and now our priority is to get them hired where as before we were just trying to get people in and registered and to complete the training. Now we’ve really shifted our priorities to getting the people that have completed so far into the system, hired and ready to go working and on-boarding with Public Health nursing,” Burnett said.

The center has a budget to hire 150 of the 500 contact tracers the state wants to train for what has been dubbed the “surge workforce,” she added, but those numbers could change if Alaska’s coronavirus case counts continue to rise.

“We know that everything we’re projecting is hypothetical and we really don’t know what’s going to happen and what the needs are going to be,” she said.

The state also has contracts with numerous school districts for school nurses to be contact tracers as well as the Alaska National Guard in addition to the Municipality of Anchorage’s contact tracing program.

The need for contact tracers has exceeded Anchorage’s capacity in recent weeks, leading Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration to start naming businesses, largely bars and restaurants, where people with positive test results had visited and contact tracers were unable to reach everyone who may have been there at the same time.

The move has been met with criticism by those who say the businesses and the industry in general have been unfairly targeted and likely will now suffer economically from being named.

Berkowitz said in a July 13 statement that Anchorage is in the middle of a “significant COVID-19 case spike” and the city’s contact tracing capacity has been overwhelmed.

“Contact tracing is critical because it allows us to know where the virus is and who has it so we can better contain it. Hospital capacity allows us to safely treat those who have become infected. We know that this public health crisis poses a threat to our jobs and businesses, and we know what works to keep safe. Mask up. Stay six feet apart. Wash hands. Keep our social bubbles small. Flattening the curve is how we stop the increase in cases. And, as we have seen in so many other states, it’s what we need to do so we don’t have to start shutting things down again,” Berkowitz said.

Anchorage Health Department officials were not able to provide details on the specific needs of the city’s contact tracing program in time for this story.

The Division of Public Health is using the “train the trainer” model to grow its contact tracer workforce and therefore is prioritizing the hire of individuals with some form of clinical or public health experience. Burnett said the process is intended to relieve public health nurses who have been doing the work since the pandemic began from the burden of having to onboard new tracers by hiring individuals that can quickly step into a supervisory role in the system.

“It’s not going to help our public health nurses and the burnout they’re facing right now if we give them (inexperienced) tier one people to supervise. They don’t need extra work. What they need is extra support to play the same role they’re playing,” Burnett said.

Division of Public Health officials overseeing contact tracing could not be reached in time for this story.

When Alaska began seeing its first cases of coronavirus in March, most individuals had only been in contact with a handful of other people given broad business and travel restrictions were in place statewide, which meant the potential contacts could be traced fairly quickly, Burnett said. Now, however, some individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus have been in contact with 50 to 100 people, which makes the tracing immensely more time consuming and challenging, she said.

“It’s just grown so much in magnitude and volume that we need to make sure we have more supervisors so that we can expand that pool of who their supervising and provide those lower level people with more support,” Burnett said.

Individuals hired to be tracers are issued an encrypted Google Chromebook, which is dedicated to contact tracing so they can do the work remotely.

The center’s program is part-time, 10 to 29 hours per week. Burnett said most tracers work four-hour evening shifts and full days on weekends.

Experienced medical professionals can earn up to $27.52 per hour and inexperienced tracers are paid $17.10 per hour, a pay scale that was vetted against Lower 48 wages with an Alaska adjustment, according to Burnett.

She added that despite the work being done remotely, tracers are needed statewide to take advantage of knowledge of local resources.

“Local people know more about their local communities and they’re better able to communicate about the resources — they’re better able to refer if there’s support needed. For example, maybe somebody is in need of child care in order to quarantine,” Burnett said.

“The need is massive. If you’re interested, we need you.”

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