To contain COVID-19, BCBS Mass. employees redeploy as “contact tracers”

Published May 4, 2020

Contact tracers help contain the spread of infection by reaching out to people who may have been exposed to COVID-19. They’re in short supply right now. But Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is deploying more than 100 of its associates to help a new statewide effort.

Contact tracers: on the front lines of public health

Contact tracing is a decades-old public health tool for stopping the spread of disease. It’s helped curb epidemics from Ebola to the measles to tuberculosis. Contact tracers visit or call patients who have been diagnosed with an infectious disease. They connect patients to the medical care and other support they might need. And they help those patients recall any close contacts they might have had over the past couple of weeks. A contact tracer can then reach out to those contacts to warn them about possible exposure and educate them about the importance of self-quarantine. The calls are confidential, and contact tracers don’t reveal their referral source.

Loaning a workforce with the right skills

It takes certain kinds of skills to do this work: empathy, cultural sensitivity, resourcefulness, professionalism. Customer service representatives and others who help customers have those skills in spades. When Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBS Massachusetts) committed to a statewide initiative to build up a contact tracing workforce, the health plan knew its associates would be ideal candidates for the job.

“Those are our core values for delivering service,” says Ryan O’Donnell, vice president of service at BCBS Massachusetts. “It made sense to redeploy our talented associates to this important public health effort. We’re excited and humbled to be involved.”

BCBS Massachusetts is redeploying more than 100 full time employees, including customer service representatives, quality coaches, managers, trainers and business experts, lending them to Massachusetts’ Community Tracing Collaborative. The collaborative is spearheaded by the state and the global public health nonprofit, Partners in Health.

“Because the needs of our business have changed temporarily during the pandemic, we are able to redirect these employees to this critical work,” says Rich Lynch, chief operating officer at BCBS Massachusetts.

Training and certification emphasize disease knowledge and privacy

Contact tracers will go through three days of training to become certified, learning more about COVID-19, public health concepts and the importance of privacy and information security. The training also includes supervised, on-the-job learning.

A national need for contact tracers

To be most effective, the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative is hiring at least 1000 contact tracers to be able to reach as much of the state’s affected population as possible. Their experiences may help pinpoint infection hotspots and help health workers focus efforts where they’re needed most.

Communities across the country are scaling up small armies of contact tracers. The National Association of County and City Health Officials estimates that, in non-emergency times, public health agencies need about 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 people. Now, those officials say, the need is double, and many states do not yet have enough resources in place.

Learn more about how BCBS Massachusetts is responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is a licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally owned and operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield Companies.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 35 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.