Former HHS Secretary Leavitt: A 'national strategy is required' for COVID-19 contact tracing

An app shows COVID-19 contact tracing app
Contact tracing and supply chain concerns due to COVID-19 were hot topics in a Senate hearing Tuesday. (Getty/LeoPatrizi)

In order to make tools like contact tracing most effective in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, "a national strategy is required," former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Tuesday.

During a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on lessons learned from COVID-19, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Arkansas, asked whether a "national contact tracing program" was needed or if Congress would do better to focus its attention on bolstering the funding of public health departments at the state and local levels.

Leavitt, who is also the former Republican governor of Utah, said he believed local execution is central to the COVID-19 response.

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"There has to be a national system that local input feeds into where standards are used in how data is collected so it can be rolled up quickly," Leavitt testified. "There are components of local execution that are required, but there is a clear need for national funding on this pandemic."

Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread.

Contact tracing is a disease control strategy that involves investigating cases of illness and the contacts a sick person has had in order to interrupt disease transmission by asking contacts to voluntarily isolate themselves at home.

A number of leading public health authorities, universities, nongovernmental organizations and tech companies have been racing to develop methods to perform contact tracing through technology. For instance, Apple and Google launched COVID-19 contact tracing via smartphone apps in April.  

In another hearing held on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, M.D., said the U.S. has only about 28,000 contact tracers—up from 6,000 in January—but needs 100,000, the Hill reported.

At the Senate hearing, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., warned the country may see its second pandemic in as little as three months.

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"That’s why I do think it’s important to do exactly what we’re doing, learn very quickly and apply what we can right now," Frist said. "We know [contact tracing] is the most effective action at this standpoint."

Different estimates have suggested states need to build up the overall contact tracing workforce to about 180,000 tracers, Frist said.

"Can states do that? Probably not, because states have had their public health infrastructure underfunded," Frist said. "I think we have to go out for federal support this time around. Maybe not next time around, until we have an effective vaccine on the market."

Other witnesses, including Joneigh Khaldun, M.D., chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said a national strategy and federal funds would help with contact tracing as well as test procurement.

"We've been building the plane while we're flying it," Khaldun said about the state's updates to contact tracing platforms as tracers work to identify and isolate people exposed to COVID-19 as quickly as possible.

Khaldun said she's been pleased with help the state has gotten from federal partners.

"But often we don’t know when those testing supplies are going to come, and when they come, they are less than we expected to get or they’re not even useful,” Khaldun said. “So we need a clear strategy from the federal government on supplies and when we’ll get them so we can plan on a state and local level.”

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