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Massachusetts Response

Partners In Health Helping State Trace Contacts of COVID-19 Patients in Landmark Agreement with MA Gov’s Office

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new initiative on 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 Boston-based global health nonprofit Partners In Health (PIH).

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

The initiative follows Gov. Baker’s recent announcement of significantly increased capacity for COVID-19 testing across Massachusetts, through private laboratories and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Widespread testing and aggressive contact tracing have been key pillars of public health responses to infectious disease outbreaks for more than a century. Along with effective isolation and quarantine measures, contact tracing has played an important role in highly successful control programs in Germany, The Republic of Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

Because of severe shortages of COVID-19 tests in the U.S., large-scale contact tracing has not been possible as many states are having trouble testing anyone beyond hospitalized patients. In many states, even those with symptoms strongly suggestive of COVID-19 infection are not being tested. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has been advocating that all countries must “go on the offensive” against the novel coronavirus, by implementing stronger quarantine and isolation measures and broader testing with contact tracing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also has recently stated that as testing becomes more available, especially with the introduction of point-of-care rapid tests, much more testing and contact tracing should be done.

Expanded testing and contact tracing will support the state’s ongoing efforts to expand bed capacity, increase supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for caregivers, and provide more ventilators. Testing, contact tracing, and safe, high-quality care are the core elements of the state’s continuously expanding response to COVID-19.

In Massachusetts, PIH and the Community Tracing Collaborative have already begun supporting the state’s efforts by training and deploying hundreds of contact tracers, who are calling people who have been in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients. The CTC’s work is combined with the state’s initiatives to increase testing, and will provides support to people in quarantine in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“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 Dr. Sheila Davis. “We’re humbled to be part of the team selected by Gov. 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.”

Partners In Health is drawing on its more than three decades of experience in community-based health care, including responses to epidemics and outbreaks such as Ebola in West Africa from 2014 to-16, cholera in Haiti since 2010, tuberculosis programs in Lesotho, and HIV programs in Rwanda.

As hospitals and health centers in the Commonwealth are providing care for the sick, the CTC is focusing on decreasing community transmission. The COVID Community Team, a virtual support center of nearly 1,000 people, is contacting COVID-19 patients, learning about their recent public activities, and ensuring them that they can take appropriate steps to get healthy and not spread the virus further.

Dr. Paul Farmer, PIH co-founder and chief strategist, said contact tracing is vital to early detection and triage for people who could slip through the public safety net, and be at risk for rapid declines in health.

“In other words,” Dr. Farmer said, “this will help us identify the already afflicted but unaware.”

PIH is coordinating closely with the state’s Department of Public Health and Department of Health and Human Services. The Community Tracing Collaborative is a partnership of four groups:

  • MA COVID-19 Command Center: overall direction and coordination

  • Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority (CCA): Working with Accenture/Salesforce to enable virtual support center and connectivity

  • Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH): maintain data, guides, processes

  • Partners In Health (PIH): hire and manage workforce; contribute technical expertise from tuberculosis, HIV, cholera, and Ebola epidemics, and decades of community-based interventions

Dr. Jim Yong Kim, PIH co-founder and board member, said that while governments around the world have been announcing massive, unprecedented stimulus packages to keep their economies from collapsing during the pandemic—efforts that are absolutely critical—what we are facing, fundamentally, is a public health crisis.

“And thus our public health efforts have to match the scale of the pandemic,” Dr. Kim said. “Moreover, in order to ease restrictions on movement and thereby restart the economy, states must establish a system that can quickly respond to anyone with symptoms, test and isolate them if they are positive, and then trace, test and, if necessary, provide supported quarantine for all of their close contacts.”

Dr. Kim added that: “This expansion of a network of contact tracers, social support providers and public health professionals will be massive. But data and experience from countries that have been successful in bending the COVID-19 curve downward have shown us that we have no choice. It’s time to go on offense against the virus.”

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We believe this new partnership will result in many lives saved, particularly among the more vulnerable communities, which are being disproportionately affected by the spread of the virus.  It is important to point out that this new stream of work will not reduce our ability to provide lifesaving care where we already work. This new program is funded by the state of Massachusetts and no past donations are being diverted to support this program.

A funding structure like this is not possible in most of the world, and for the majority of the communities PIH serves.

That is an injustice -- one that costs lives. As we counter COVID-19 in Massachusetts, we continue to fight the virus on many other fronts, in some of the most impoverished places on earth. Those efforts still require your support, and every bit helps.

You can still contribute to our global response by starting a monthly gift.

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