The current pandemic has turned up a need for “contact tracing,” the process of finding those actually infected with the coronavirus and who might, in turn, have infected others. According Kate Murphy in the New York Times, contact tracing is harder than it sounds, but it has been managed with some success. The best contact tracers, it turns out, came out of a venereal disease investigation after World War II. Syphilis was then rampant, and carriers weren’t exactly eager to talk about it.

The “elite cadre” of contact tracers had to be “psychiatrists, detectives and problem solvers all at once.” The personal health assistants (PHAs) had to have a college degree, liberal arts preferred, and a variety of work experiences. As Murphy also notes, the process for contact tracers is different today. In San Francisco, for example, “they are hiring primarily furloughed city employees, such as librarians, city attorneys and tax assessors.” That sounds like a rescue program for government employees, and embattled Californians might wonder if these are the best people for the job.

In the throes of a pandemic, few people will be eager to chat with an attorney or tax assessor with no health background and eager to acquire names. Those jobs were not the primary qualification for the post-WWII contact tracers, who achieved great success. As Murphy notes, by the mid-1950s, syphilis rates were the lowest they had ever been. Gov. Newsom’s “trace force” has a tough act to follow.

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