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North Carolina is mobilizing a small army of medical sleuths to trace an unseen enemy and prevent it from gaining ground in new hosts.

In typical times, a contract of this size might be hashed out over weeks or months. But life in the era of COVID-19 has been anything but typical.

On Monday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced a new partnership to hire 250 more contact tracers. Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen has likened the workers to detectives in a medical mystery who track down where COVID-19-positive people have been and try to warn those who may have caught the new coronavirus.

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That partner, Community Care of North Carolina, posted openings for four jobs. Less than a day later, more than 1,500 people had already applied for 250 openings.

Paul Mahoney, spokesman for Community Care of N.C., said his company and the state have a preliminary agreement and are working through the details.

Among those unresolved details is pay for these pandemic sleuths. The company and the state don’t yet know how much these workers will be making.

“Of course, it’s a common question from an applicant,” Mahoney said. “It will be a week, maybe two, before we can answer that.”

And it may not even take that long, he said.

“Everything is different in this COVID environment,” Mahoney said. “Everything is being done so quickly.”

While the state and Community Care hammer out a contract, the job offerings were placed online to give residents a chance to apply. Cohen said those who are unemployed because of the COVID-19 outbreak will be given priority for employment.

Small medical practices are having to furlough their administrative staffs, Mahoney said, and people in those positions would be ideal for the bulk of the open positions. These medical sleuths and supporting staff will be classified as independent contractors, he said.

More than 875,000 North Carolina residents have filed for unemployment since March 15, according to the state Department of Employment Security. The vast majority of those say they have lost work due to COVID-19.

Job openings with Community Care of N.C. include case investigators, regional supervisors, contact tracers and data managers. People with high school diplomas or higher can qualify for some positions.

When asked where the need for contact tracers was greatest, Cohen said it’s a mix between urban areas that have more people to begin with and other areas that might have a hot spot, like a nursing home.

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The state recently surveyed health departments on their need for contact tracers, Cohen said Tuesday.

“The good news is most of them are doing quite well to do the work that there is,” she said. “We know things are going to ramp up.”

That will especially be true once the state loosens restrictions on leaving home and allows more businesses to open.

For more information, visit Community Care’s webpage on the tracing collaborative.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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