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Contact Tracer Hiring Is A Challenge For Portland Metro Leaders

By Erin Ross (OPB)
May 21, 2020 1:30 p.m.

As Oregon counties move to reopen, there’s a lot they need to do.

One of the biggest challenges identified by elected leaders in the Portland metro area is the hiring of contact tracers.


According to leaders of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, which are the most densely populated in the state, hiring more contact tracers and getting support networks in place for those who need to quarantine are the last things they need to do before they can reopen.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said hundreds of people have reached out to apply.


“We’re having an outpouring of people who want to help. And I wish I could put them all to work tomorrow,” she said at a recent gathering of top officials from each of the three counties. She added that most of those expressing interest in working as contact tracers aren’t qualified.

Contact tracing involves asking people very intimate, complicated questions about where they live, where they go and with whom they come into contact. It’s not about hiring someone with experience working on phones, or even medical experience — although that helps.

As Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington said, “We really do need people who are with medical experience in some form or fashion, and we are also looking for people who are trusted in their communities. Who speak the language, who are culturally competent.”

Harrington and Kafoury both said that it’s crucial for contact tracers to be trusted by their community.

“We really need to have someone from the community there calling and saying, ‘Hey, it’s OK, let me be there with you and walk this path with you while you’re answering these questions,” Kafoury said. If the person isn’t known, Kafoury said, communities with reasons to distrust the government won’t even pick up the phone.

There’s another major barrier beyond finding competent tracers: money. Kafoury estimated it will cost Multnomah County $75 million over the next year to maintain the new social-distancing-friendly homeless shelters, to pay for motel rooms for the infected to isolate in and to pay for contact tracers. She said the county is about $20 million short of covering all those costs.