Hundreds of Massachusetts COVID-19 Contact Tracers Are Getting Laid Off

As the state's number of cases declines, a program that put Massachusetts' coronavirus response on the map is seeing cuts.

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It was the program that put Massachusetts’ coronavirus response on the map. In April, the state launched its ambitious, $44 million contact-tracing program, the first of its kind in the U.S. But now, just a little under three months into the program, the 1,000-strong army of contact-tracers is seeing a wave of layoffs as COVID cases drop across the state.

Per an investigation by WCVB, approximately 200 contact tracers volunteered to be laid off and left on or before last Friday, June 26. Another round of cuts is expected Monday. “In the beginning, I didn’t know if we would ever get through the list, but I took the layoff because I feel guilty sitting in front of a computer and charging for doing nothing,” one contact tracer told WCVB. “I just wait; there’s not much to do,” said another. “It’s a weird experience. I feel like I’m stealing money from the state.”

Contact tracing—or, the process of calling up people who have tested positive for coronavirus, advising them to self-isolate at home, and then contacting the web of people who may have been exposed to that person—is a labor-intensive process. It’s why the state had to hire such a huge number of people to get the program off the ground. Other countries, including South Korea and Singapore, have staged contact tracing programs, but most have relied on digital surveillance rather than humans. Per the experts at Partners in Health, the nonprofit that is staging the Massachusetts program, using human contact tracers is a vital investment—Paul Farmer, one of the nonprofit’s founders, told the New York Times in April that there is no substitute for the bond of trust that human contact tracers can form, and that people who are exposed to the virus need to feel cared for and reassured.

Governor Baker echoed the sentiment. “It’s not cheap,” he said to the Times at the time. “But the way I look at it, the single biggest challenge we’re going to have is giving people confidence and comfort that we know where the virus is.”

As of earlier in June, the CTC had made over 300,000 calls and connected with people about 90 percent of the time. Now, however, cases of COVID-19 in the state are dwindling. Since the surge of cases in April, the number of new cases in Massachusetts has begun to slowly decline, with health officials reporting 224 new cases and 19 new deaths on Sunday. Per data analyzed by Covid Act Now, Massachusetts is one of four states in the U.S. that is containing the virus. The website states that Massachusetts’ positive test rate is at 2.3 percent, as compared to 28.9 percent in mid-April, during the surge.

In a statement to Boston, the Baker administration said that the cuts are due to the state’s declining number of cases and identified close contacts; however, the program’s goal remains to contact every person who tests positive for COVID and their close contacts. The statement also asserts that if there is an increase in cases, the contact tracing program “has the infrastructure in place to quickly scale back up its staffing operation to meet demand.”