According to the Centers for Disease Control website, contact tracing, a core disease control measure employed by local and state health department personnel for decades, is a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19. Immediate action is needed. Communities must scale up and train a large contact tracer workforce and work collaboratively across public and private agencies to stop the transmission of COVID-19. Expert estimates of how many tracers we will need range from tens of thousands to as high as 300,000. Evidently, we only have a fraction of those today.

This issue is gaining more attention in the mainstream press.

On May 10, the Wall Street Journal published that experts say the US needs tens of thousands of contact tracers to open safely.

On May 9, MarketWatch published that librarians are being enlisted to help in the battle against coronavirus — how you, too, can get a contact-tracer job.

On May 8, MarketWatch published, Here’s a vital job unemployed Americans can do to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 25, NPR ran this interview, What It Takes To Be A Contact Tracer, in which Michel Martin speaks with John Welch, the director of partnerships & operations for Massachusetts' COVID-19 response at Partners In Health, about their contact tracing program and training. Here’s what Welch says is required:

It is exactly as you described it, a ramp-up at this stage, a lot of quick hiring and, you know, in-depth training and making sure we have the right people who have the right skills but then most importantly people who have the patience and the empathy to listen. They're reaching out to people who are in crisis and some people who are in acute crisis sort of superimposed on a chronic crisis of maybe poverty or marginalization. And those individuals need extra time and not only need it - they deserve it. So these contact tracers are balancing the need for understanding how to do the work while also just being a gentle ear.

These are exactly the resources and skills that can be offered by professionally-trained debt collectors, who may currently either be out of work or under-utilized.

Many likely do not know that collections associates don’t only collect debt; They do an extensive amount of customer care, financial literacy education, problem-solving, and most of all – listening.  This is one of the most heavily regulated and heavily audited industries in the United States, with extensive compliance and security infrastructure. In fact, companies that collect on behalf of the Department of Education (who are all but sidelined at the moment) even undergo background checks in order to be licensed to do their job. Legitimate, professional collection agencies are regularly audited by clients, state regulators, and federal regulators.

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Additionally, in order to remain in business, these companies know that above all, they must protect the brand integrity of their clients. A rash of public complaints about their behavior would be the fastest way to lose business.

Many may also not realize that there is a human face behind each collection voice. 70% of the industry is female and 40% are minorities. Additionally, collection firms employ a greater percentage of individuals with a disability (7%) than are represented in the labor force overall (3.7%). (ACA International, August 2016. Small Businesses in the Collection Industry: An Overview of Organization Size and Employment)

Addressing the requirements mentioned above by Welch

A lot of quick hiring – Legitimate, professional collection agencies stand ready with thousands of available representatives, many of whom are now equipped to securely work from home in a supervised manner. This could be much more efficient for local public health departments than trying to hire people one at a time.

In-depth training – At the core of every legitimate, professional collection agency is a well-tested training infrastructure. These organizations are used to managing this process.

People with patience and empathy – Reaching out to people in crisis is what collectors do every day. That’s exactly what they are trained for. Professional, legitimate collectors are specifically trained to be patient and empathetic – and many organizations even use voice analytics software to reinforce this training.

People with the right skills – Legitimate, professional collections associates are trained to ask questions and to uncover information in the right way. And, at the same time, the privacy of the individual is at the core of the laws governing the industry (this is the primary focus of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or FDCPA). Every organization already operates under policies and procedures that protect third party disclosure. In addition to the FDCPA, many associates are also specifically trained in HIPAA regulations.

The Centers for Disease Control also calls contact tracing "Part of a Multipronged Approach to Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic" and lays out the requirements. Here are those requirements, and why collection associates are ideally suited to them.

  • An understanding of patient confidentiality, including the ability to conduct interviews without violating confidentiality (e.g., to those who might overhear their conversations) – See above under “People with the right skills” regarding common practice in the debt collection industry.
  • Understanding of the medical terms and principles of exposure, infection, infectious period, potentially infectious interactions, symptoms of disease, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic infection – Obviously this training would be required but as noted above, a significant number of collection agencies serve healthcare clients and are specially trained in not only debt collection but in understanding medical terminology, EOBs, and other details required to decipher medical bills.
  • Excellent and sensitive interpersonal, cultural sensitivity, and interviewing skills such that they can build and maintain trust with patients and contacts. As noted above under “People with patience and empathy” this is exactly what legitimate, professional collectors are trained to do.
  • Basic skills of crisis counseling, and the ability to confidently refer patients and contacts for further care if needed – Legitimate, professional collections associates regularly listen first, assess needs, and refer consumers to financial counseling or other resources as appropriate.
  • Resourcefulness in locating patients and contacts who may be difficult to reach or reluctant to engage in conversation. This skill is unique to the debt collection industry. Many are in fact trained to be “skip tracers” which requires the same exact skills.
  • Understanding of when to refer individuals or situations to medical, social, or supervisory resources – See note above under “Basic skills of crisis counseling”.
  • Cultural competency appropriate to the local community – Collection agency call center employees are located around the country and, if appropriate, could be matched to needs locally.

If ever there were an application that is uniquely matched to an industry, this is it. Contact tracing and debt collection require the exact same skills. And many in the industry stand available to be deployed right now. This just requires some pivoting. Reach out to your local health department -- they are the ones coordinating the effort. 

 


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