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Massachusetts Is Developing A Contact Tracing Program To Ensure Safe Reopening


In the fight against COVID-19, Massachusetts is going on offense. It wants to lead the charge on contact tracing. That is the effort to track down every person in the state who's been in close contact with someone who tests positive, get them on the phone one-on-one, help them figure out a plan to isolate. The idea is an army of contact tracers will help slow the spread of the coronavirus, which in turn will allow businesses and schools to reopen and allow people to go outside again.

Charlie Baker is the Republican governor of Massachusetts. He's on the line now from his office. Governor, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHARLIE BAKER: Thank you very much; appreciate the chance to chat.

KELLY: Well, let me tick through some of the questions that are being raised and challenges 'cause I'd love to let you respond to them. First of all, how realistic are the numbers that you're working with? I'll put two numbers on the table. Your office tells me that as of today, you've got 850 people on the team making calls. But there are more than 56,000 confirmed cases in Massachusetts, and that number's going up every day. That's a big gap, 850 people trying to track down 56,000 confirmed cases and everybody they were in contact with.

BAKER: Yeah, there's no question that the slope is big, and the hill is high. But the one thing I do know is if you don't start walking up it, you'll never get to the top. And we currently have a plan to hire about a thousand people to do this by the end of the month, but there were many, many more people who are interested in doing it. And if we need to expand our community of contact tracers, we will.

And the second thing I would say is that we thought when we got into this that the close contact stuff would involve reaching out to as many as 10 people who had been in contact with somebody who tested positive. And because of all the social distancing we've been doing, that number is more like two or three. So...

KELLY: Oh, I see. So you're saying social distancing, you believe, is working, and that means people have close contact with fewer and fewer people, which makes it easier to trace those contacts.

BAKER: Seems to be that from what we've discovered from the, you know, thousands of calls we've done so far.

KELLY: Yeah. I saw - that prompts another question. I saw just today you extended the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts to May 18. But eventually, you're going to have to ease social distancing and allow businesses to reopen, which then presumably increases the number of contacts for every case, which makes tracing harder. I mean, just speak to that tension. It seems an inherent tension between contact tracing and reopening society, which I'm sure you also want to do.

BAKER: Sure. I think part of the point behind tracing and the work associated with that and especially the support for people who are isolating is it's hard to understand if you don't do something like this how you give people confidence that you're chasing what I would call an affirmative approach to deal with the spread of the virus.

People get the fact that if they stay at home and they don't go out and if they're not part of an essential business - they just go to the grocery store or whatever it might be - they get the fact that that stops the spread. But if you start talking about some kind of phased reentry into something that looks a little more like whatever a new normal would be - face coverings, distancing and all the rest - people want to know that you're doing something to identify cases and then do all you can to limit the contagion.

KELLY: None of this works if there aren't enough tests, if you don't know who's sick. And I know Massachusetts, you've said, is testing more people than most other states, but I'm sure not as many as you would like. No state has the ability to test as much as they would like. Do you need to do both in tandem - the testing and the tracing?

BAKER: We're definitely among the big states that are dealing with the most cases. We're right behind New York in terms of per capita testing. And I said many times that I don't think the level we test at is enough to be where we're ultimately going to need to be. But 35 days ago, we were testing a thousand people a day. Now we're testing nine or ten thousand people a day, and that's 35 days later. I certainly think we need to do more testing, but I also think we've demonstrated that we have the sort of imagination and creativity to find a way to continue to build on our testing capability.

KELLY: Do you need help from the federal government to make this successful?

BAKER: I've said for a long time that I think the feds have a big role to play in testing. And I was glad to see funding in the fourth round of the coronavirus response at the federal level include funding for both the CDC and the FDA around testing and treatments. Let's face it. State governments cannot put the accelerator to the floor when it comes to enhancing or expanding the country's ability to test or the country's ability to treat. Those belong to the FDA, the CDC and other federal agencies that have to sign off on and do the work on that stuff.

KELLY: What about to trace? Do you need help from the federal government there?

BAKER: I mean, help from the federal government there would be terrific. I know that Scott Gottlieb and Andy Slavitt have both talked about a role the federal government could play in sponsoring and supporting tracing. I think that would be great. I think it's - but I was not of the opinion that we should wait for the federal government to head down this road. I wanted to get going on this because I do think it's something that's critical to our strategy to deal with containing COVID generally.

KELLY: Last thing to ask you is this. You nodded to - that Massachusetts has been hit really hard by the coronavirus. I know you talked about the death of a close friend's mom at a press conference earlier this month. And I wanted to offer my condolences and also just ask on a personal note, how are you doing? How are you holding up during this?

BAKER: Well, I never expected to be in the midst of anything like this. I mean, I've dealt with hurricanes and 28 days of snow in a row and tornadoes and gas explosions. We had a horrible natural gas explosion up the Merrimack Valley...

KELLY: I remember. Yeah.

BAKER: ...Couple years ago. But those were all things I could see, and I had some idea about how they had been dealt with and handled before. There was, like, a playbook for this stuff. This is a very different kind of challenge, and it's all-consuming. Stuff that I thought was really important, you know, 45 days ago doesn't seem so important at the moment. You know, my dad's 91 years old. I used to have a meal with him once a week. I haven't seen him since February. And...

KELLY: That's hard. Yeah.

BAKER: And I was telling people this morning that one of my brothers actually somehow remotely explained to him how to FaceTime on his phone. And he and I FaceTimed on Saturday. It's the first time I've seen his face in, you know, almost two months. And it was really special.

And I think this whole thing is insidious in so many ways. And I really hope that we are able, through tracing and testing and some of these other initiatives, to really try and turn the tide a bit and make life a little less un-normal (ph) for people. I mean, we have - we canceled...

KELLY: Yeah.

BAKER: ...School for the rest of the year. And so a whole bunch of kids who thought they were going to graduate from high school - they'll still graduate, but they're not going to have a prom. All the spring sports were canceled. I mean, there's just...

KELLY: It's hard. Yeah.

BAKER: There's a lot, too, that is difficult. And I hope people understand that folks like me are trying to figure out what the path forward is, recognizing that we're working against an enemy here that's sort of unknown and we're still trying to figure out, which just makes the whole thing a lot more complicated.

KELLY: Governor, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

BAKER: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Take care.

KELLY: You, too.

That's Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "IKEBANA)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.