[Excerpt from BBC News feature article by Tara McKelvey, 7/6/2020]

Disease detectives are trying desperately to beat the clock and find those who have been exposed to the virus. Can they move fast enough to stop the pandemic?

As a public-health director in Savannah, Georgia, Cristina Pasa Gibson spent her time in an office filled with calorie counters and yoga mats and the scent of jasmine tea. Then she started working on contact tracing, a no-holds-barred effort to stop the pandemic, and her office and her life were turned upside down. "I felt like I was in a Vegas casino," she says. "I didn't know what time it was, what day it was, who I was."

She and her colleagues in Savannah and her counterparts in other cities across the country have been working frantically to trace the path of the infection and to find those who may have been exposed to the virus. They talk to patients, asking for names of individuals they have spent time with, and chase down those individuals and to tell them to remain isolated so they do not infect others.

The pressure on investigators and contact tracers has been intense. "I basically lived in my office," says Gibson, describing the early days. "It was Groundhog Day over and over."

Today their role is even more important. The US now has the highest number of cases and deaths in the world.

Red State, Blue State

Gibson is grappling with the pandemic, and she and her colleagues are trying to use contact tracing as a way to contain the virus. Her counterparts in New Haven, Connecticut, a city that lies almost 900 miles to the north, are also working feverishly to track the disease. Yale University student Tyler Shelby, 26, the son of a Kansas police detective and a fan of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a BBC version), helped to organise an investigative squad and coordinates dozens of volunteers.

Cristina Pasa Gibson of Savannah and Tyler Shelby of New Haven are struggling with life-or-death matters in a country where people are deeply divided in their views of the pandemic and how the government should manage the health crisis.

The number of cases has shot up in Georgia, Florida, Texas and other states where governors tried to reinforce Trump's message about the nation's economic comeback. Meanwhile the number of cases in Connecticut, New York and other northern states, places initially hit hard by the virus, has gone down.

The contact-tracing initiatives in New Haven and Savannah are far from perfect. But they have been recognised by experts in the field as programmes that were started early and run with vigour. Taken together, these two programmes offer a snapshot of the high-stakes drama of contact tracing and show how the system is being put in place in both the northern and the southern parts of the country.


New Haven, a city once known for its manufacturing industry and now for its university, Yale, is close to the New York epicentre. For many New Yorkers, New Haven is the end of the line, the place where they step off the train. In April, New Haven officials were reporting 20-35 new cases each week per 10,000 people, according to DataHaven, a nonprofit organisation, a spike that was caused partly by people from New York. By late June, more than 1,070 people had died of the disease in New Haven and the surrounding county.

Savannah is a port city far from the coronavirus hotspots. In April, while Cristina Pasa Gibson and her colleagues were organising their team, they had fewer cases to manage. Officials in Savannah and the surrounding Chatham County reported only one or two new cases each week per 10,000 people, according to DataHaven. By late June, 37 people in Chatham County had died.


Read the full article at BBC News.