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When Rhett Buckley starts his next semester of nursing school, he’ll also be able to earn some extra cash by working as a contact tracer for a local health department.
Buckley, who attends nursing school at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, recently completed a free online course to become a contact tracer and hopes to fill one of the 4,000 tracer jobs in Illinois. For Buckley, the opportunity is a win. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job and gives me the flexibility I need,” says the 39-year-old, who adds that the position provides him a front seat to learning about today’s public health crisis.
With coronavirus cases still rising around the country, there’s a high demand for contact tracers. Their job is to find and inform people who have come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19. There are about 300,000 contact tracers needed across the country, according to an estimate from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. And with money allocated from state and federal funds for training and hiring contact tracers, the role is drawing people across the U.S. to the field of public health.
In health care, contact tracing is a long-used strategy. In the past, contact tracers have tracked down people who have come in contact with diseases including HIV, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases. But because of the virus’s huge rate of spread in just a few months, breaking the chain of transmission for COVID-19 is more urgent. “COVID-19 is a different animal — the need is much greater,” says Melissa Marx, assistant at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is leading local COVID-19 contact tracing efforts.
Here’s everything you need to know about contact tracing as a career, including how to get started, how much it pays, and more.
Finding a Contact Tracing Course
Top institutions have stepped up to offer popular contact tracing courses virtually.
John Hopkins University offers a COVID-19 Contact Tracing course through online provider Coursera, which has drawn interest from around the world including the U.K. and the Philippines. Users go through modules about the basics of contact tracing and can earn a downloadable certificate after completing roughly six hours of modules. More than 550,000 people have signed up for the free course.
This online offering is meant to introduce people to the role, but will ultimately require additional training from the local health departments, says Marx. “Contact tracing is a little bit of an art,” says Marx. “People do need to practice and they need to see it done well.”
Other courses are also available locally through community colleges. In most cases, no previous knowledge is required and many can be finished in as little as a week for free. Signing up for a local course can also make it easier to become connected to job opportunities in the surrounding area.
Buckley, who took the course in early June, says the subject matter kept him engaged. The group learned about HIPAA compliance, disease transmission, and how to troubleshoot when encountering a variety of problems. The last course module provided suggestions about where to apply for jobs. “They covered a lot of the basics,” he says.
How Much Does Contact Tracing Pay?
In many states, contact tracers can have flexible hours and get hourly wages working for private companies or public health departments.
Tracers across the country earn an average of $20.83 per hour, with some jobs paying more than $25 per hour, according to Indeed.com, a jobs site that tracks salary data. Tracers are often hired on a contract basis spanning months, without the promise of a long-term job opportunity.
Other places are offering contact tracer jobs with salaries and benefits. In Baltimore, tracers hired through the Baltimore Health Corps can earn between $36,000 to $81,000 per year including benefits, says Fagan Harris, chief executive of Baltimore Corps and one of the partners of the contact tracing initiative for the city.
What Qualifications Are Necessary?
Workers in hard-hit service industries including hotels and restaurants have applicable skills because of their background in dealing with the public. “It’s very accessible to those with backgrounds of customer service,” says Harris.
Many health departments also seek employees who can identify with the community they are serving or can speak additional languages, says Harris. “We are looking for people with a wide range of backgrounds,” says Harris. “They need to come across as authentic and in touch.”
In some places, contact tracers are hired for year long contracts in a full-time capacity. The goal for many contact tracers is to get transferred to roles in other areas of public health as the pandemic evolves, says Harris. “We’re really seeing this as a career play,” he says. “For a lot of folks this could be a pivot for a career in health care.”