Contact tracer jobs dry up just as WCCC launches training program

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Those contact tracer jobs that sounded like a lifeline to workers left unemployed in the midst of the pandemic, are gone.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health said Wednesday the state filled all of its 1,000 positions for contact tracers — individuals hired to track down people who had close contact with those who have tested positive for coronavirus.

That news came as officials at Westmoreland County Community College announced the launch of a program designed to train individuals for such jobs. The $400, 45-hour program is slated to begin Dec. 7 and follows on the heels of a similar program the Community College of Allegheny County launched in May.

David Pistner, vice president of work force and community development at Westmoreland said his office was in contact with officials at CCAC to ensure their program offerings did not conflict.

Although the announcement of the Westmoreland program specifically notes that the school is not guaranteeing employment or job placement, Pistner said officials thought the program would put those who finish it in good stead for employment in the state program.

“The last time I talked with them, they had about another 200 or so to hire,” Pistner said.

Nor for the time being, are there employment options at Excela or the Allegheny County Health Department.

Although Allegheny is recruiting contact tracers, health department spokesman Aaron Aupperlee said the agency is not hiring to fill such positions. Rather, it is referring those who want to be part of the effort to its Medical Reserve Corps, a group of volunteers who are on standby to assist the Health Department.

Officials in Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Department of Health have been accepting individuals who finished the Johns Hopkins contact tracer training program offered free online through Coursera. State Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle said those the Pennsylvania Department of Health hired also were required to complete state specific training through Insight Global. The state tapped Insight Global to administer its $23 million contact tracer program and hire and train workers for the entry level and supervisor posts that paid anywhere from $17 to $25 an hour.

Wardle said community college officials from the Harrisburg Area Community College and CCAC both reached out to the department about their programs and were referred to Insight Global.

He said the community college programs seem to be extended versions of the Johns Hopkins and other online courses.

“They are extensive 45-hour courses that incorporate other skill-building that can be used not just in contact tracing but in other public health-social service fields, as well,” Wardle said.

Contact tracing, reaching out to individuals who have been in recent close contact with those who have tested positive for an infectious disease, is among the first line defenses public health experts rely upon to slow the spread of infectious disease.

State officials acknowledged the need for a robust contact tracing program when they tapped nearly $23 million in federal CAREs Act funds to build a contact tracer corps that could be deployed at the state and regional level.

Contact tracers for the state are tasked with calling individuals who test positive for the virus and collecting information about their close contacts and following up with outreach, offering information and education to those who unknowingly may have been exposed. The telephone interviews last about 30 minutes.

It has met with mixed reactions from individuals hesitant to share information as well as scammers posing as contact tracers to collect personal information such as social security and credit card numbers that can be used for identity theft.

State and local officials responded by warning that they do not collect personal financial information and pleading with those who are contacted to cooperate with contact tracers to slow the virus’ spread.

In Westmoreland County, which unlike Allegheny County does not have a county health department, county commissioners said they have no plans to tap CARES Act dollars to launch contact tracing efforts. That money, some $31.5 million in federal funds earmarked for pandemic efforts, was used to cover the county’s costs and provide grants to nonprofits and small businesses struggling under the economic impact of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, we have no CARES Act money. All the money has been spent,” said Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli.

Officials said the county is relying upon the state to conduct contact tracing as the virus surges through the region.

Although the Community College of Westmoreland County has no current job leads for those who enroll in its contact tracer training program, Pistner is optimistic its program will place those who complete it in good stead to pursue other options and training in public health and could give them an advantage should schools and businesses opt to launch their own contact tracing programs.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .

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