It was only a few weeks into the rollout of New York City’s much-heralded contact-tracing program, a vital initiative in the effort to contain the coronavirus and to reopen the local economy. But in private messaging channels, the newly hired contact tracers were already expressing growing misgivings about their work.
One said the city was “putting out propaganda” about the program’s effectiveness.
Another wrote, “I don’t think this is the type of job we should just ‘wing it,’ and that’s the sense I’ve been getting sometimes.”
A third tracer said, “The lack of communication and organization is crazy.”
The authorities around the world — especially in East Asia and Western Europe — have rapidly enacted contact-tracing programs, which are used to identify and then isolate groups of people who may be infected with the coronavirus.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that the city’s new Test and Trace Corps, which has hired about 3,000 contact tracers, case monitors and others, will make a difference in curbing the virus now that the outbreak that devastated New York in the spring has waned.
But contact-tracing programs have presented an array of challenges to government officials everywhere, including difficulties hiring many workers, privacy issues and faulty technology, like apps. And New York City’s seems to have been especially plagued by problems.
The de Blasio administration acknowledged that the program, which began on June 1, had gotten off to a troubled start, but said that improvements had been made.
“All signs indicate that the program has been effective in helping the city avoid the resurgence we’re seeing in other states,” Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said.
Still, some contact tracers described the program’s first six weeks as poorly run and disorganized, leaving them frustrated and fearful that their work would not have much of an impact.
They spoke of a confusing training regimen and priorities, and of newly hired supervisors who were unable to provide guidance. They said computer problems had sometimes caused patient records to disappear. And they said their performances were being tracked by call-center-style “adherence scores” that monitor the length of coffee breaks but did not account for how well tracers were building trust with clients.
Some also bristled at what they described as crackdowns on workers talking to one another.
The New York Times developed a portrait of the program through interviews with several current and former workers, as well as through an examination of internal documents. Further information was obtained from screenshots of Slack messaging channels used by tracers, which featured numerous conversations about workplace conditions.
“It reminds me of an Amazon warehouse or something, where we are judged more on call volume or case volume than the quality of conversations,” one newly hired contact tracer, a public health graduate student, said in an interview.
“To me, it seems like they hired all of us just to say we have 3,000 contact tracers so we can start opening up again, and they don’t really care about the program metrics or whether it’s a successful program,” she said.
Most of the current workers interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity, saying that they feared losing their jobs if they spoke out publicly.