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Baltimore to run independent contact tracing program with funds from Pepsi, Rockefeller Foundation

Anne Arundel Department of Health contact tracers speak by phone with COVID-19 patients and people they come into contact to check on their health conditions.

Baltimore is launching a coronavirus contact tracing operation separate from the state that will employ up to 300 individuals who have lost work due to the pandemic, officials announced Thursday.

The $12 million public-private program — supported by the mayor’s office, Baltimore Civic Fund, Baltimore Corps and a host of foundations and corporations including the Rockefeller Foundation, PepsiCo and CareFirst — will train case investigators in contact tracing, health education outreach and care coordination, said Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young at a news conference at the city’s War Memorial.

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Young said the pilot program, dubbed the Baltimore Health Corps, addresses the intertwined economic and public health crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected about 5,900 city residents and killed more than 350 since Baltimore began tracking cases in March.

“The Baltimore Health Corps is first-of-its-kind because it will target hiring individuals who have recently lost their jobs due to the pandemic and live in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 as community health workers, including those without previous healthcare experience,” Young said. “All 300+ members of the Baltimore Health Corps will receive a living wage and a stipend for health insurance to serve as full-time, trusted contact tracers and care coordinators in our communities."

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The city’s contact tracing network will run independently of Maryland’s, which has about 1,400 investigators tasked with communicating with those known to be infected to identify other people who might have come into contact with COVID-19. Tracers compile individuals’ health information and points of contact into a database and also assist infected individuals in quarantining and getting tested for the illness, which has sickened nearly 55,000 people statewide.

The coronavirus has hit the black, Hispanic and Latinx communities particularly hard in Maryland and across the country. Both groups combined account for more than half of the state’s confirmed cases, state data show, despite making up less than 40% of Maryland’s overall population. In Baltimore, however, they make up nearly 70% of the population, according to the latest U.S. Census estimate.

Fagan Harris, CEO of hiring network Baltimore Corps, said the Baltimore Health Corps will recruit residents who can use their lived experiences to their advantage in the growing field of community health.

“The coronavirus pandemic is hurting all of Baltimore, and it will take every part of the city coming together to make progress against it,” Harris said in a statement “This project critically recognizes the public health value in hiring residents who know and understand our hardest hit neighborhoods, and I am hopeful that our work here can be a model for other communities across the country.”

Members of the Baltimore Health Corps will take on community health education training through the Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, which includes a contact tracing course funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and developed by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Employees also will receive legal and mental health support as needed, provided by the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development.

For up to a year, the operation will focus on contact tracing and public health education, augmenting the state’s investigators in targeting the city. Employees also will help with social support services for infected individuals, helping to procure housing options and aid for families of the ill while they quarantine. The network will pay special attention to older adults, those uninsured, and those who are pregnant or have young children, according to a Thursday news release from Baltimore Health Corps.

“Over the next year, the Baltimore Health Corps will reach thousands of city residents every single day, providing critical support and care coordination to many of Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities and families with the ultimate aim of keeping us all safe,” said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore City Health Commissioner, in a statement.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has singled out contact tracing as a critical pillar toward lifting more state-imposed restrictions, which halted all public gatherings, closed school buildings, postponed sporting events and prohibited in-person shopping and dining in March. On Wednesday, the Republican governor announced the state would enter its next phase of reopening. As with prior steps toward reopening, cities and counties have the authority to keep stricter measures in place.

HealthCare Access Maryland, Johns Hopkins University affiliate Jhpiego and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore also signed on to help run the $12 million initiative, with funding support from donors such as the Maryland Department of Labor, T. Rowe Price Group, the Goldseker Foundation and the France-Merrick Foundation, among others. The Rockefeller Foundation’s initial $2 million commitment jump-started the effort, Young said, but a $3 million gap in funding remains.

The Baltimore Health Corps is currently seeking applicants for immediate hire as contact tracers with salaries starting at $35,000 a year. Applicants do not need prior health care experience. Those interested can go to https://jobs.crelate.com/portal/baltimorecorps.

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