April 23, 2020

Warren and Levin Lay Out Plan for a National COVID-19 Contact Tracing Program

Contact Tracing is a Necessary Component of Containing the Virus, Re-Opening Our Country, and Reviving Our Economy

Lawmakers Propose "Coronavirus Containment Corps" to Track Virus and Bolster Public Health Workforce

White Paper (PDF)

Washington, D.C. - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congressman Andy Levin (D-Mich.) today released a white paper outlining their proposal for a federal contact tracing program to halt the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The lawmakers are calling for their plan for nationwide contact tracing to be included in the next COVID-19 response package from Congress. 

"In order to keep our communities healthy and get our economy up and running, we must stand up a national contact tracing program that will stop the spread of this virus dead in its tracks," said Senator Warren. "Congressman Levin and I have laid out a plan for what this program should look like, and we look forward to working closely with our colleagues to advance this proposal through Congress."

"Establishing a nationwide contact tracing program is the only way we can truly know the progress we've made in containing the virus, and how far we have left to go before we can transition back to normal life," said Congressman Levin. "Senator Warren and I are pushing for an aggressive, comprehensive system of contact tracing that will not only help us end this public health crisis, but also activate America's exceptional workforce." 

Contact tracing is a public health tool in which public health fieldworkers identify infected patients, get in touch with close contacts of those patients, explain what those contacts should do next to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, and follow up in the intervening days and weeks. The U.S. has relied on contact tracing to combat past epidemics, such as tuberculosis, and uses contact tracing today to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Experts and government officials agree that contact tracing will be essential to mitigate COVID-19, and countries that have slowed the spread of coronavirus, such as South Korea and Singapore, used contact tracing to do so.

Despite the importance of contact tracing, the U.S. public health infrastructure is not equipped to conduct tracing at the scale necessary to beat COVID-19. Last year, Congress cut the total U.S. public health budget by $265 million, and there are only 2,200 contact tracers currently employed in the U.S. To successfully engage in a COVID-19 contact tracing program, massive investments in our public health and testing infrastructure are needed.

The lawmakers' proposal for a national contact tracing program has three main components:

  • A Nationwide Strategy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must, within 30 days, develop a national strategy to hire, train, and deploy COVID-19 case investigators and contact tracers who reflect the diversity of their communities and who will identify individuals with COVID-19; identify individuals with COVID-19; trace their contacts; and provide contacts with support and information. This strategy must take into account the unique needs of state, local, territorial, and tribal public health officials, and must explicitly state the minimum number of case investigators needed; the minimum number of contact tracers needed; the minimum number of support specialists needed; and the qualifications necessary for these new fieldworkers and specialists.The strategy includes recording and publicly reporting data, while protecting the privacy of individuals and information regarding their personal health and protecting tribal data sovereignty.
  • A Local Response. The CDC must provide grants-with a base level of funding for all, plus additional funds based on population-to state, local, and territorial health departments to hire, train, and deploy case investigators, contact tracers, and social support specialists in accordance with the national strategy. These grants must be sent within 30 days of the CDC releasing its national strategy. Funding must also be provided to the Indian Health Service (IHS) for corresponding efforts. The CDC must work with the IHS to create a reporting infrastructure for tribal and urban Indian organizations that respects tribal data sovereignty and ensures tribal consent. The CDC must also publicly report on the individuals hired and contacts traced as a result of the grants.
  • A Strong Workforce. The Department of Labor (DOL) must fund state, local, territorial,and tribal workforce agencies to connect unemployed individuals with contact tracing employment opportunities. The DOL must also provide funds to allow agencies to connect these individuals to long-term employment after the conclusion of the COVID-19 public health emergency, and the CDC must provide additional funds post-pandemic to ensure that state, local, and tribal public health workforces remain robust in the future.

The lawmakers' proposal, which is modeled after the robust contact tracing program implemented in Massachusetts, also calls for increased COVID-19 testing to ensure that contact tracing can happen at scale.

The full text of the white paper is available here.

To successfully conduct contact tracing, the United States must also rapidly boost its COVID-19 diagnostic testing capacity. Senator Warren has announced a series of policy proposals to increase diagnostic testing, including:

  • Unveiling a detailed plan on March 26th to increase the supply of diagnostic tests by forcing President Trump to utilize the Defense Production Act, establishing a dedicated COVID-19 testing fund to support test development, and hiring new public health workers to administer tests;
  • Leading the bicameral Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act on to enhance demographic data collection and publication on COVID-19 testing prevalence, health outcomes, and deaths, including data on race and ethnicity; and
  • Co-leading, with Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a letter to the Administration demanding real-time data reporting on the nation's COVID-19 diagnostic testing capacity.