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VDH Boosts Contact Tracing Efforts With New Hires and Tracking Technology

two people in hazmat suits practice testing a dummy
The Virginia Department of Health is recruiting contact tracers to help combat coronavirus. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

*VPM News intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza reported this story.

The Virginia Department of Health told reporters Thursday they have received over 6,000 applications from people who want to help with statewide contact tracing efforts.

VDH officials say there were roughly 130 contact tracers on staff before the pandemic. Now they have about 470, most of whom had to be reassigned from other areas. They say the department’s goal is to bring over a thousand new hires on board in the next few weeks.

Joanna Cirillo is a public health nurse with the VDH. She says a more robust contact tracing workforce will be especially critical as the state reopens and more people begin to come in contact with each other.

“When we call them, we help them get connected with city resources,” Cirillo said. “We're looking to do that more efficiently, getting people the resources they need so they can stay in their home.”

Earlier this week, Gov. Ralph Northam said Virginia will spend $58 million in federal funding from the CARES Act to expand the state’s contact tracing capabilities.

A spokesperson from VDH also told reporters they will soon distribute a smartphone app that will let individuals know when they have come near someone with COVID-19. 

Rather than developing its own app like other states have done, Virginia will use tracing technology developed by Apple and Google, said Mona Bector, deputy commissioner of administration at VDH.

Advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned about how this technology impacts privacy. Bector says participation through the app will be voluntary, and that privacy and transparency are a top priority.

“We’re trying to help people and not make them fearful of any kind of new technology,” Bector said.

She said VDH is also developing an artificial intelligence tool that will check people for COVID-19 symptoms and recommend for them to either quarantine or seek further medical assistance.