Community Tracing

International epidemic expertise to help Massachusetts respond to COVID-19   

A map of Massachusetts in red labeled COVID-19
Image: bgblue / Getty Images

This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of medicine, biomedical research, medical education and policy related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the disease COVID-19.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new initiative April 3 to accelerate the state’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 by dramatically scaling up the state’s capacity for contact tracing through a new collaboration with Partners In Health (PIH) in which Harvard Medical School faculty will play key leadership roles.

Joia Mukherjee, HMS associate professor of global health and social medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and PIH’s chief medical officer, cited the organization’s experience in responding to disease outbreaks around the world.

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“Whether fighting Ebola in West Africa, tackling HIV and tuberculosis for a generation, or facing the sudden emergence of cholera in Haiti, we at Partners In Health know that even as we prepare the hospitals in the Commonwealth to provide safe and effective care to all the people who are sick, we must simultaneously stop the ongoing spread of COVID-19 if we are to end this terrible pandemic,” she said at the State House during a Boston press conference announcing the collaboration.

The Massachusetts COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative (CTC) is designed to not just flatten the curve but to bend the curve downward to more rapidly reduce the number of cases in Massachusetts.

The CTC is a partnership of four groups: Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Command Center, Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority, Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Partners In Health.

PIH will coordinate closely with the state’s Department of Public Health and Executive Office of Health and Human Services to support the state’s efforts by training and deploying hundreds of contact tracers, who will call people who have been in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients. The CTC’s work will be combined with the state’s response initiatives and will provide support to people in quarantine to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Mukherjee, who is also associate professor of medicine in the Department of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, spoke about how effective contact tracing can help people learn their COVID-19 status, or possible risks, and take appropriate steps to care for their families.

“Access to this information helps contacts to know how to protect their loved ones, and to get tested or cared for themselves,” she said. “Without knowing our own status, without being able to specifically protect our loved ones, we are all living in the dark. And we know that there is significant anxiety in this darkness.”

Mukherjee spoke about her own experience, sharing a home with her elderly mother and wanting to keep her free of COVID-19.

“We believe that people want to know if they have been in contact with this disease,” she said. “Knowing one’s status will shine the light on this epidemic and make it possible for Governor Baker’s great vision—of having the Commonwealth lead on stopping transmission—to happen.”

Mukherjee and Paul Farmer, the Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard and co-founder and chief strategist of PIH, both spoke about how the collaborative will approach contact tracing with love and compassion, to humanely inform people of their risks and provide access to social support and resources.

“I am grateful as a citizen, I am grateful as a Brigham and Women’s physician and Harvard Medical School professor, to join this effort with the expert mercy that is called for in these times,” Farmer said. 

“Enhanced tracing capacity is an enormously powerful tool for public health officials to rely on in their battle against COVID-19,” Baker said. “By monitoring and isolating through an enhanced community tracing program, our state can be positioned to reduce the number of cases in the long run.”

Baker said that while local health boards in Massachusetts already are contact tracing, the collaborative will bring “a much more robust, targeted approach” that is “working toward a goal of getting staffed and ready to go… by the end of this month.”

The collaborative is part of the state’s multifaceted preparation for an expected surge of COVID-19 cases in coming weeks.

“When you start getting into numbers like the types of numbers we’re talking about in our projections, you need a larger organization with a much larger infrastructure,” Baker said. “The difference is between doing this for a few thousand people and doing it for tens of thousands of people.”

“We are living in a difficult and unprecedented time, and it is imperative that all of us in the Commonwealth contribute to controlling this epidemic,” said Partners In Health CEO Sheila Davis. “We’re humbled to be part of the team selected by Governor Baker to fight COVID-19 and hope that PIH’s experience fighting pandemics around the world will help stem the grim tide of the COVID-19 epidemic in Massachusetts.”

This story is adapted from a news article from PIH. Read more about PIH's response in Massachusetts and what PIH co-founders Farmer and Jim Yong Kim have to say about this unique partnership.