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Johns Hopkins and Bloomberg Philanthropies, with New York State, Launch Online Course to Train Army of Contact Tracers to Slow Spread of COVID-19

New course teaches applicants the fundamentals of identifying contacts with known cases and how to encourage them to self-quarantine

With the urgent need to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with Bloomberg Philanthropies, today launched a free online course to help train a new cadre of contact tracers to reach and assist people exposed to the virus. Taking and passing this course will be a requirement for thousands of contact tracers being hired by the state of New York to fight the pandemic.

The new course, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing,” highlights how contact tracing is a key component of a public health strategy to slow the spread of COVID-19 without large-scale shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. Through presentations by expert faculty and role plays, the course teaches the basics of interviewing people diagnosed with COVID-19, finding their close contacts who might have been exposed, and providing them advice and support for self-quarantine. Contact tracing is a public health practice that has been successful in breaking the chain of transmission of other infectious diseases, including measles and tuberculosis.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and former three-term mayor of New York City, recently announced an initiative to develop a large-scale contact tracing program in New York state. The program will include a baseline of 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents in the state and will utilize additional tracers based on the projected number of cases in each region. The program is expected to have 6,400 to 17,000 tracers statewide depending on the projected number of cases.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is supporting the state Department of Health with recruiting and interviewing applicants, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School has developed this online curriculum to train candidates. Vital Strategies’ initiative Resolve to Save Lives will provide technical and operational advising to New York state health department staff. The program will serve as an important resource to gather best practices and as a model that can be replicated across the nation.

“Contact tracing allows us to communicate with people infected with COVID-19, identify those who may have been exposed, and provide all of them with guidance to limit the spread of the disease,” said Bloomberg. “This new training course, which we’re making available online for free, will teach contact tracers how to do this work effectively—and help cities and states across the nation undertake these critical efforts.”

“Testing and tracing are critical to our reopening plan, and New York is leading the nation on both fronts. We’re testing more than any other state and now we’re working with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Johns Hopkins to quickly build an army of tracers for our contact tracing program that can serve as a model for the rest of the nation,” Governor Cuomo said. “This innovative online training course is a key component of our program that will provide tracers with the tools to effectively trace COVID-19 cases at the scale we need to fight this pandemic.”

A recent report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School estimated that the current situation in the United States requires a new workforce of at least 100,000 contact tracers to limit the spread of COVID-19 and begin to reopen the economy.

To support the effort, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has developed the contact tracing course that is available for registration on the Coursera platform starting Monday, May 11, 2020. It is open to anyone in the world, whether they are interested in becoming a contact tracer or just want to understand the process. Applicants in New York state will be invited to take the course after their application is reviewed and they pass an initial interview. The interview, followed by taking the course and passing the final assessment within 72 hours, will be required to be hired into the New York state program.

“Controlling the spread of COVID-19 will require the hiring and training of a public health workforce in record time,” said Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, vice dean for Public Health and Community Engagement at the Bloomberg School. “This introductory course provides a strong foundation in the core concepts of contact tracing, from how to talk to people about COVID-19 to key ethical principles.”

The lead instructor of the course is Emily Gurley, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Bloomberg School. Among other contributors to the class is Bloomberg School senior research associate Tolbert Nyenswah, LLB, MPH, who was the incident commander for the response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

The contact tracing course, which takes six hours to complete, is divided into five sections or “modules.” The course covers:

1. Basic information on the virus and COVID-19, including symptoms of infection and how the virus is transmitted;

2. Fundamentals of contact tracing, such as how to define a case, identify their contacts, and calculate how long a contact should isolate;

3. Steps involved in investigating cases and tracing their contacts, including simulated scenes performed by professional actors who illustrate potential interactions that tracers may experience with infected individuals and their contacts;

4. Ethics of contact tracing, including balancing privacy and public health considerations, and examples of basic technology tools that can facilitate contact tracing, such as using text messaging for check-ins and reminders;

5. Skills for effective communications in the tracing process, such as what it means to be an “active listener” and how to deal with common challenges that arise when investigating cases.

“We hope the excellent content and easy accessibility of this virtual training program can contribute to achieving the speed and scale required to get the New York State program up and running,” said Kelly Henning, MD, who leads the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Health program. “We believe it also can be useful for health departments around the country and around the world eager to aggressively expand contact tracing.”

“The Bloomberg School of Public Health has been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 since the beginning, helping leaders and the public understand and respond to this pandemic with the best available science and evidence,” said Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD, ScM, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Massive contact tracing is a critical component of our recovery. We are thrilled to bring our deep expertise on this important public health practice, as well as our experience in industry-leading online teaching, to the training and curriculum for this groundbreaking effort.”