Emily Adams GurleyEmily Gurley, PhD, MPH, associate scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, answers Public Health Newswire’s questions about the school’s new free online COVID-19 Contact Tracing course she teaches to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Q: Why is contract tracing so important in pandemic response efforts?

A: Contact tracing is a staple public health intervention used every day in the U.S. and other countries to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases. Contact tracing was a key component in the efforts that halted the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a few years ago. Since we still have no curative treatments or vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, primary prevention of infection is the best strategy to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

While contact tracing cannot eliminate this disease from the U.S., if it’s done quickly and well, it can keep transmission low while we await development of better treatments or vaccines. Contact tracing represents the best chance we have at reopening parts of our society without sacrificing tens of thousands of lives in the process.

Q: Tell us about the new COVID-19 Contact Tracing course you’re teaching on Coursera.

A: For folks interested in becoming contract tracers, this course is a great way to learn more about the job to make sure it’s a good fit. Being a contact tracer can be very rewarding, but it’s also demanding. The six-hour course gives students a basic understanding prior to initiating more intensive contact tracing training at their local health department.

A secondary audience is anyone who wants to know more about contact tracing and how these programs can help their communities reduce the risk of transmission. In the first week the course was offered, more than 150,000 people enrolled, so it’s clearly providing a useful source of information to people interested in knowing more about this disease and how we can stop it.

Q: What are some of the challenges of being a contact tracer and how does the course address those

A: As with any public health intervention, contact tracing works best if it has the trust of individual cases and contacts, as well as the broader community. The job of a contact tracer is part detective, part social worker and part therapist. Contact tracers need to have good people skills, be good listeners and be able to build rapport in order to give and receive useful information.

Contact tracing works to stop transmission only if cases and contacts can be supported to effectively change their behavior to keep from infecting others. This requires contact tracers to help people solve problems like how they will get food and medicines they need without leaving the house. Our course provides tips on how to do this well and, importantly, demonstrates how some of these techniques are used in simulated calls. 

That said, it is not the sole responsibility of contact tracers to build trust and rapport with the community. That responsibility lies with all of us – from our elected and public health officials, to community and religious leaders and our friends and family. We must help each other understand what contact tracing does to help us stay safe and prevent transmission in our communities.

Q: Is the course being rolled out in conjunction with any state or local health departments?

A: Our course was developed with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, as part of their overall support for efforts to ramp up contact tracing in New York State. In New York, the training is part of the recruitment process – applicants retained after the first interview must pass the course before moving onto the next hiring step.

It’s also being used to train contact tracers in Chicago and Baltimore. The course is free to anyone who wants it, but special enrollments can be organized with Coursera for interested states and cities. Students taking the course benefit from the ability to get a free certificate through the end of the year. 

People interested in becoming contact tracers should contact their local or state health departments to inquire about opportunities. While we hope that the course will be helpful to train contact tracers, it does not guarantee employment and may not be part of training efforts in all states.

For more from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, check out its Novel Coronavirus Research Compendium website that assesses, curates and summarizes emerging evidence about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 for front-line public health professionals and clinicians.

Photo credit: Linden Tree Photography. Interviewer: Kelly Hilovsky, Bloomberg American Health Initiative Policy Fellow at APHA.