NEWARK, NJ — This month, the City of Newark has put in motion an ambitious undertaking to test as many of its 280,000 residents as possible, starting with its homeless, senior and public housing population — but according to officials, testing is only half the battle.
That’s why the city, with the help of Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Health, is redeploying dozens of its employees and students to contact trace the positive cases that come through is various testing locations, a task Mayor Ras Baraka says will be the only way to ensure Newark and cities like it can begin to reopen safely.
“We’re doing it because it’s necessary,” Baraka said at a press conference on Thursday. “If you’re not going to get contact tracers, it doesn’t make sense to test people. One missed contact tracing can undo weeks worth of social distancing.”
While all cities, including Newark, employ a few disease investigators and contact tracers (Newark had about three and six, respectively, at the onset of the public health crisis), New Jersey’s largest and most affected municipality is amassing what it’s calling an “army” that’s growing with its testing goals.
With about 250 tracers working now and what will soon be 40 disease investigators, the pool of workers is increasing with case contact need, according to Marc Wade, director of the city’s Department of Health and Community Wellness.
Partners in Healthcare, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that’s part of the city’s initiative along with Rutgers and Newark Alliance, estimates a need for 80 tracers per 100,000 residents. Thanks in part to the state’s relaxing of requirements for licensing these tracers, getting them trained and working has been expedited.
Some states are even using librarians as contact tracers to meet the demand for the work, officials said.
The program, which is being led by Newark Alliance CEO Aisha Glover under the direction of the city, is not adding to Newark’s coronavirus expenditures since the tracers are already either city employees or public students at Rutgers. Contact tracing goes back decades and has been used in crises like Ebola and HIV.
Tech giants Apple and Google announced this week that they’re working rapidly to develop software that could have a major impact on how contact tracing is performed worldwide. While Newark city officials are ready to work with whatever helpful developments may arise in the global fight to combat the coronavirus, they’re focused on doing what they can in the here and now.
“Right now, we think it’s more important for us to build an army of people who can actually go out there and identify people and tell them what it is that they need to do. We can do that, like, tomorrow,” Baraka said.
Officials don’t have data available yet for how many positives they were able to identify as a result of the contact tracing program, but will in the coming weeks. Newark continues to lead the state in positive cases with more than 6,000 confirmed infections and nearly 500 deaths.
While the numbers are striking, the city said the growth is getting slower. New cases are down about 150 per day from 250, speaking to the effectiveness of social distancing. Next week, this city opens up two new walk- and drive-thru testing cites on Bergen and Springfield Avenue and in the North Ward for uninsured residents.