Special to TAPinto. This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

New Jersey has committed to spend some $23.5 million over three months to beef up the state’s contact-tracing capacity under a deal signed last week with a Boston-based consulting group doing similar work in New York state.

But it is not clear how the work of the company, Public Consulting Group — as outlined in a purchase order provided to NJ Spotlight under the state’s open records law — will align with efforts already underway at Rutgers University’s School of Public Health to hire, train and deploy up to 1,000 graduate students as contact tracers.

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New Jersey officials said Thursday that some aspects of the deal with PCG are still being finalized, but noted the company was one of 64 that applied for the role and it was the “most advantageous” to the state. For the time being, Rutgers will continue to manage the contact tracers it hires, according to the state.

But School of Public Health Dean Perry Halkitis, who joined administration officials in June to talk about Rutgers’ role in contact tracing, questioned the choice of an out-of-state contractor and said he has been unable to get clarity from the state on how the two contractors are supposed to work together.

“I think it is incredibly short sighted that an organization outside New Jersey was chosen when very skilled, competent entities in New Jersey competed for this work,” Halkitis said, adding the school of public health did not apply for this role. “The benefit of our contract was that all funds were flowing back to the state.”

Supplementing local tracing

Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli announced two weeks ago the state had hired PCG to recruit diverse and multilingual tracers, train them using a model developed by Rutgers, dispatch them to assist local public health teams as needed and oversee their work to track down potential coronavirus cases in an effort to control the pandemic’s spread. These tracers are intended to supplement roughly 800 local public health professionals who have been tracking the pandemic’s spread since March.

According to the purchase order dated July 27, the state would provide PCG nearly $20.7 million to pay 1,200 contact tracers for three months of full-time work; another $1.5 million would cover wages for 60 supervisors and $540,000 would go to project management costs. Other funds would cover technology, community engagement, quality assessment and more.

The state is also paying tech firm DiMagi, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, nearly $1.9 million for use of its CommCare software, a reporting platform officials said is now being used by contact tracers in all 21 counties, according to a June 17 price quote provided to NJ Spotlight in response to another records request. The software is designed to ensure tracers are all reporting the same metrics and enable officials to track the program’s success statewide.

Persichilli and Gov. Phil Murphy have repeatedly stressed the critical role of contact tracers and the need to expand the state’s capacity to contain the pandemic, starting in April when the governor first sketched out plans to reopen the economy. Murphy has pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to hire up to 7,000 more tracers, based on the caseload, and the state launched a multilingual education campaign this week to encourage people to participate if they are called by a tracer.

“The role of contact tracers takes on a new urgency, especially against a virus that we are still learning about, and which we have no proven defense against,” Murphy said in early June, before chastising reporters for suggesting the process to create the corps had dragged on excessively. “Our job over the coming months is to grow their ranks. And we will. And we will do so rapidly.”

Ramping up contact tracing nationwide

Some 183,700 New Jerseyans have now been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, including close to 16,000 confirmed and likely fatalities. Roughly 30 tracers are recommended per 100,000 people in densely populated areas, according to the Association for State and Territorial Health Officials, which has advocated for a more robust contact-tracing corps nationwide.

Murphy has since scaled back his expectations, more recently calling for a statewide corps of 1,600 people. Between 1,200 and 1,300 tracers are currently at work, according to officials, the vast majority of whom are employed by local health departments that have for months been calling infected patients, identifying who and where they have visited and tracking down those contacts to urge them to get tested and quarantine.

In June, the administration announced it had signed a deal with Rutgers that called for the public health school to recruit and train graduate students for the contact-tracing work, which led to the creation of an 18-hour online training module that is now the standard for all New Jersey tracers. At that time, the DOH also sought to hire another entity to employ and manage this growing contact-tracing corps, with pay guidelines that would add up to more than $5 million a week.

Halkitis said Thursday the agreement was actually not finalized until late July. He said the deal calls for the state to provide nearly $13.3 million to Rutgers to cover wages and training costs for 1,000 tracers and 21 county social service coordinators, through mid-September.

“We have been fulfilling these deliverables in an expeditious and high-quality manner,” Halkitis said, noting that about 500 tracers have been trained and deployed so far through the Rutgers system. In addition, Rutgers has yet to receive any state funds and has been covering these costs out of pocket, he said.

Halkitis is also unsure how the Rutgers initiative will be synchronized with PCG’s work, which he said he first learned about when it was announced at a news conference in late July. He said the DOH told him that tracers hired and trained by Rutgers would essentially be transferred to the new contractor at some point and additional workers would be hired by that company as needed. But Halkitis said he has so far been unable to schedule a meeting with PCG officials to discuss the process and their plans to use the Rutgers training model.

In addition, the Rutgers initiative has focused on recruiting graduate-level individuals for the tracing role, which requires strong communication skills, persistence and analytical abilities, Halkitis said. He is concerned that PCG may opt to hire tracers with lower education levels, like the high-school graduate requirement used in New York City, which Halkitis said has made the program less successful.

“This is a really, really tough job that takes skills,” he said. “I have no idea what will happen when (PCG) takes over.”

To view this article in its original format, click https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/08/state-pays-private-contractor-23-5m-for-coronavirus-work-rutgers-already-doing.