As Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio weigh lifting the PAUSE on New York, they have taken steps to initiate contact tracing in New York. Contact tracing has become the keyword for relaxing limitations on public gatherings and opening up the state’s economy.
The governor has said success will mean hiring an “army of tracers”, and 17,000 people will be hired. Mayor de Blasio announced the city will be hiring 1,000 tracers “with a health care background.” Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg has stepped up with funding, hiring a staffing company and support from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The school will develop an online curriculum for tracers-to-be, who will have to pass a test to be hired. Students from CUNY and SUNY will screen applicants.
Contract tracing is not new. Health departments already use the method successfully for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. However, contact tracing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic will uncover additional, unmet needs that are urgent.
Unemployment rates are sky-rocketing while one-third of food pantries reportedly have closed. Contact tracing in this environment will put tracers in touch with people experiencing trauma, grief, financial crises, discrimination as well as those who are barely making ends meet. There are few New Yorkers left untouched by this crisis. Many have lost jobs, are schooling children at home or facing the lonely death of a friend. Stress, anxiety and social isolation are rampant. Social workers are ideally suited to join Gov. Cuomo’s “tracing army” and they are prepared and eager to help New Yorkers repair and heal.
A social work contact tracer is already trained to assess mental health needs and understand policies and how to tap resources for unemployment or food security. We are trained to look at problems holistically, and skilled at working face-to-face in people’s homes or on the phone. Our Code of Ethics drives us to be compassionate and comforting in carrying out our mission to serve, and to act with integrity. As has been well-documented, racial and ethnic minority communities have been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. Social workers will help bridge the gaps between a healthcare system that often has failed people and the need to quell this pandemic.
The social work profession is rooted in contact tracing and public health. In early 20th century settlement houses, social workers identified a communal water source as the starting point of a disease epidemic. After World War II, a cadre of social workers were recruited to address the needs of returning veterans and their families. On April 30, 2020, there were 305,024 cases and 23,317 coronavirus-related deaths in New York State. Though Governor Cuomo reported these numbers are declining, he also called for continued vigilance as the state focuses on reopening. Sensitive contact tracing is key to the success of this plan.
This spring, more than 3,500 students will graduate from schools of social work in the greater metro area. Armed with their master’s degrees and intensive field work experience, they will be looking to start jobs in a really tough market. Just as other “essential” workers have been swiftly inducted to meet our cities’ needs during the COVID-19 crisis, these newly-minted MSWs will bring an essential resource to the next phase of our fight against the pandemic. Along with more than 5,000 members of the National Association of Social Workers, New York City Chapter and nearly 60,000 licensed social workers in New York State, our 2020 social work graduates are eager and ready to heed the call.
Benjamin R. Sher, MA, LMSW, is the President, National Association of Social Workers (NASW), New York City Chapter Board of Directors. Jennifer Zelnick, MSW, ScD, is a Professor & Social Welfare Policy Chair, Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. Erica Sandoval, LMSW is the President-Elect, NASW-NYC Chapter Board of Directors