State scales back contact tracing program

Barry Chin/Boston Globe pool photoGov. Charlie Baker speaks to reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

BOSTON — As the number of new coronavirus cases drops, the state is scaling back a program that tracks down people at risk of infection.

In April, the state teamed up with the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health on an initiative to trace contacts of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Gov. Charlie Baker touted it as a first-in-the-nation program that was critical to slowing the spread of the virus.

The Baker administration is now shrinking its team of contact tracers.

Baker said Tuesday the state has reduced the number of employees working as COVID-19 investigators in recent months as the data continues to improve. He cited the declining numbers of positive test results as the reason.

"There's no question that if your positive test rate goes down from 30% to 2%, you're going to have less work for those folks to do," Baker told reporters.

The Community Tracing Collaborative was designed to scale down or expand to respond to outbreaks as needed, he said.

"If the numbers start to go up, we have the infrastructure in place to scale it back up pretty quickly," Baker said.

At one point, the program had more than 1,600 workers, some enlisted from private health care networks such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Baker couldn't say exactly how many contact tracers had accepted voluntary furloughs, but he called the reduction "significant."

Contact tracing involves identifying people who've been in close proximity to someone infected with COVID-19, then asking those people to self-quarantine and monitor for symptoms. Federal guidelines say anyone who has been within 6 feet of a COVID-19-infected person for more than 15 minutes should be notified.

Investigators have reached out to hundreds of thousands of people since the effort began. They've been credited with slowing spread of the virus in Massachusetts.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health reported for the first time in months no new COVID-19-related deaths. The total number of deaths statewide actually decreased, to 8,054, after the state removed some duplicate reports from its records. The agency also reported 114 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases, for a total of 108,882.

Of the thousands of tests given in a day, about 1.9% are positive, compared to nearly 17% at the beginning of May, according to health officials.

Baker said the data shows the state's strategy to fighting the virus and reopening the economy is succeeding.

"It's working for us but we clearly need to stay on our game," he said. "As I've said before, COVID-19 will not be taking a summer vacation."

Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School for Public Health, said the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine means contact tracing will be around for a while.

He cautions the state against scaling back the program, arguing that it should be a permanent feature of the public health system.

"The state has made a strong commitment to contract tracing, which is a very positive step," he said. "We need to maintain that, and develop it into a revitalized public health workforce, which has been overlooked and underfunded for way too long."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

||||

Recommended for you