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Bloomberg To Lead NY Contact Tracing Program

Michael Bloomberg speaks to a crowd in Burlington, Vermont
Pat Bradley/WAMC
File: Michael Bloomberg speaks to a crowd in Burlington, Vermont

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has offered to take over the complex and labor intensive process of contact tracing after someone becomes sick with coronavirus, and is putting up $10.5 million to help do so.

Cuomo and health experts believe that contact tracing will be very important during a predicted second wave or even a third wave of the virus. Along with more widespread testing of those who are experiencing symptoms, the method can help isolate those who are at risk of becoming sick or spreading the virus, without having to shut down the entire economy.

The governor says details still need to be worked out. He says no one has ever attempted contact tracing on such a large scale, and calls it a “monumental effort” that will also involve coordination with New York City and its suburbs, upstate regions, and neighboring states, including New Jersey and Connecticut.

“Michael Bloomberg will design the program, design the training, he's going to make a financial contribution also, put together an organization that can help hire the people," Cuomo said.

"Because we have to expand this number tenfold, and we have to get this all done, like this,” Cuomo said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “You don’t have months to plan and do this. You have weeks to get this up and running.”

Cuomo’s Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa, says Bloomberg won’t be doing it all alone. He’ll be working with Johns Hopkins University’s public health program, of which Bloomberg is a major funder, and which issues the definitive map of coronavirus cases worldwide

“They, in partnership with us, are creating an online curriculum to train the tracers, to recruit them, to interview them and to perform the background checks,” DeRosa said. "We're going to coordinate all of the counties and also with New Jersey and Connecticut." 

The state will also be recruiting people to work as tracers through existing health department staff, investigators who work at state agencies and medical students at State and City University of New York medical schools.

Cuomo says he hopes, if successful, it can serve as a model for other states.

"We're all eager to begin loosening restrictions on our daily lives and our economy. But in order to do that as safely as possible, we first have to put in place systems to identify people who may have been exposed to the virus and support them as they isolate," Bloomberg, said in a statement.

State health officials have been trying to get more data about the rate of infection that’s already occurred among New Yorkers, and have been conducting random tests at grocery stores around the state to see if shoppers might have the antibodies in their blood to show that they already contracted the virus and recovered. Cuomo says it’s the largest study in the country, and will hopefully put to rest speculation on what has been the actual spread of the disease in the U.S. so far. 

“What percent of the population has been infected? Nobody knows,” Cuomo said. “Nobody knows the fact.”

The results will not be known for several more days.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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