On June 6, 2020, there were 378,024 cases and 24,259 coronavirus-related deaths in New York State. Though Governor Cuomo reported these numbers are declining dramatically, he also called for continued vigilance as the state focuses on reopening. Contact tracing has become the keyword for relaxing limitations on public gatherings and opening up the state’s economy. The governor has said success will mean hiring an “army of tracers”, and 17,000 people will be hired.
Social Ills Accompany Physical Ills
Unemployment rates are skyrocketing in New York and, according to city officials, since the COVID-19 crisis began approximately 35% of the city’s roughly one thousand food pantries, soup kitchens, and mobile pantries have closed. Last week, stunning video of an extremely long food line in Corona, Queens began circulating on Twitter. According to Reuben A. Torres, a Univision reporter, the line stretched for twenty blocks, with many hopeful families going home empty-handed. That has pushed needy residents to take trains across the city to find help wherever they can and increasing risk of exposure.
Rican Vargas is one of those New Yorkers scouring the city for food. On a gray Thursday morning, the fifty-eight-year-old self-employed street vendor and lifetime resident, is standing outside CHiPS, a food pantry on the outskirts of downtown Brooklyn. “I ran out of food. So that’s the only reason I came out,” Vargas said, holding a plastic bag with a bacon, egg and cheese inside. “I came all the way down here because up in my neighborhood the pantries are dry,” he said. “They’re all like, ‘Not today, no food.’ They’re waiting on trucks”.
There are few New Yorkers left untouched by this crisis. Many have lost jobs, are schooling children at home or facing the lonely death of a friend. Stress, anxiety and social isolation are rampant. Contact tracing in this environment will put tracers in touch with people experiencing trauma, grief, financial crises, and discrimination, as well as those who are barely making ends meet.
Social Workers as Contact Tracers
Social workers are trained to look at problems holistically and skilled at working face-to-face in people’s homes or on the phone. A social work contact tracer would already be trained to assess mental health needs and understand policies and how to tap resources for unemployment or food security. Social work contact tracers can also help bridge the gaps between a healthcare system that often has failed people and the need to quell this pandemic. No profession is better suited or prepared to support the vital effort of contact tracing as New York State society resumes normal life.
Ready, Willing, and Able
“This spring, more than 3,500 students will graduate from schools of social work in the greater metro area. Along with more than 5,000 members of the National Association of Social Workers, New York City Chapter and 60,000 licensed social workers in New York State, the 2020 social work graduates are eager and ready to heed the call,” said Benjamin R. Sher, MA, LMSW, President, National Association of Social Workers. “Just as other “essential” workers have been swiftly inducted to meet our cities’ needs during the COVID-19 crisis, these newly-minted MSWs will bring an essential resource to the next phase of our fight against the pandemic.”