Hailing NYC for most effective contact tracing for Covid in the US

Kicker: Vishavjit Singh, a senior leader with the NYC Test & Trace Corps since last year, spoke to The South Asian Times.  

By Parveen Chopra
Editor, The South Asian Times

Vishavjit Singh, a Case Investigator Supervisor in the NYC Test & Trace Corps Program, says that theirs is the biggest such program in the nation and the city successfully used contact racing as one of the biggest tools to take control of Covid. He gives credit for that to New Yorkers who cooperated and followed the guidelines and 4,000 plus of his team members.

Though his masters in public health brought him to Test and Trace, Vishavjit is a multifarious personality. He is an artist, activist, diversity speaker & creator of www.Sikhtoons.com. He is also helping United Sikhs on global Covid-19 relief efforts. His message and work have been covered by news outlets including The New York Times, NPR, BBC, Huffington Post and Time magazine.

NYC Test & Trace Corps is a public health initiative created last May to fight the threat of Covid-19. The Corps is a group of doctors, public health professionals and community advocates. It is led by NYC Health + Hospitals in close collaboration with the NYC Department of Health.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Vishavjit Singh:

The South Asian Times:  Tell us how the South Asian community has been faring in the pandemic.

Vishavjit Singh: Pretty much every community has been impacted a lot and, as you know, a large number of South Asians live in Queens, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods last year from March to June. If you look at the numbers last year, areas like Richmond Hill and Flushing were affected badly.

Our program focuses on every borough, every zip code, anybody who tests positive in New York City in any City lab no matter where you are from — India, Russia, or you’re visiting. Those results are sent to the Department of Health. We at Test and Trace Corps then get the results from the department and we follow up with whatever phone number is listed. The cases may be from South Asian or any other community, we each out to them.

TSAT: In your knowledge, are the South Asians less willing to come forward if they have Covid?

Vishavjit: I don’t see evidence of that. Of course, at times there are cultural and language barriers. But in our programs from the very beginning, we use language specialists for just about every language you can imagine, be it Telugu, Tamil, Bengali or Hindi and Punjabi.

Initially it was a challenge across the board because people didn’t know who we were or what contact tracing is. So, it took a while for the city to make everybody aware that we are using contact racing as one of the biggest tools to take control of Covid. We had to make people realize, “Hey, respond, you know, we are calling to help you, we are neighbors, family members, New Yorkers to help you.”

TSAT: So how does test and trace work?

Vishavjit: It brings together a lot of different people – NYC Health and Hospitals is the main institution that is managing and running Test and Trace, with Department of Health behind the scenes. The Mayor’s office is actively engaged and his public health advisors are part of the effort. They get to meet our director, Dr Ted Long, who gets updates to the Mayor daily.

Effectively, what we do is, anybody who tests positive in the City, we get them in our system. We call people who have tested positive. We check on their symptoms; their medical history, some of the conditions, maybe chronic conditions. And we have hotlines if they want to reach out to physicians, nurses. We offer some educational and other resources – all free. If you cannot isolate at home — and isolating is one of the effective ways to stop the spread of Covid — you can safely separate at a free hotel room and even get free meals. There you can get wellness checks, and internet access. We even arrange grocery deliveries to people’s homes if needed.  Also, home testing and PPE, hand sanitizers, oximeters.

By now we have reached out to over 90% of people who have tested positive or have been exposed to Covid since the beginning.

TSAT: On a scale of 10 to 1, where is New York now compared to last spring and summer?

Vishavjit: We’re probably down to 1 or 2 going by our daily case rate, hospitalizations and deaths that the Governor gets to share. We are not down to 0 yet.

TSAT: So, is the City opening too soon too much?

Vishavjit: We had a huge surge last year – over 8,000 cases a day at the peak. Right now, we are down to a few hundred. We are not out of the woods yet, but I feel we are in a pretty good position. We have vaccinated a little over half of adults in the city. Now there’s an intensive push by the city to go into neighborhoods where the vaccination numbers are low, for example, in Bronx and Queens.

Yet, I would highlight to every New Yorker to still take precautions. I know the CDC just made a big announcement that if you’re vaccinated, you don’t need to mask up outdoors and most situations indoors. Personally, I’m going to wear a mask even when I’m outdoors.

TSAT: So, what can the Indian community continue to do to protect themselves?

Vishavjit: Couple of things. First, get vaccinated and that I cannot emphasize enough.  Now you can walk into some of the locations to get vaccinated without appointment. Two, if you feel the need, get tested; testing is easily accessible now. If you have any symptoms, get tested but stay home. If you do test positive and you get a call from us, respond to it. Please follow the guidelines, isolate for 10 days.

TSAT: So, what inspired you to work for the Test and Trace Corps?

Vishavjit: You know, last March was very scary. The only other time I can think of where it felt like that was 9-11. You heard sirens all the time, you heard just the news of people dying. In NYC we have lost over 30,000 people by now, but the majority of those 30,000 were lost in the early weeks last year when the pandemic hit. Around that time, I lost my job which was to travel across the US to talk about diversity, inclusion and equity at companies and schools and organizations. In that moment to be productive I remembered my master’s in public health that I received from University of California in the late nineties. I don’t work in that field anymore, but I said, “Look,  my city is going through a very difficult period (we were the epicenter then), and I am going to lean on my education and I am going to help out”. So I applied and got accepted. This has been one of the most meaningful jobs I have had. Because we have saved the lives of New Yorkers through contact tracing.

Test and Trace has not been  an easy program to run. You bring together 4,000 people in a matter of weeks and then tell them, “Here is what we’re going to do”. Most companies like Google and Apple have not been able to do this in a matter of a few months. We started in May last year and were fully functioning in June 2020.

TSAT: How do you see the tragic story of Covid end?

Vishavjit: What is unique about today is the global vaccination drive. I don’t know any other time in human history when within a matter of a year all of us were focused on this one thing. Of course, we have a long way to go. Even in India, vaccination is going to be a massive effort and it’s going to take some time. But the key right now is millions of people have been vaccinated and vaccinations are very effective. They are the one way we are going to get out of this.

I also feel this pandemic in some ways is bringing us together. It’s a kind of reminder to all of us that we’re connected. We’re getting impacted by this disease and together we’re going to get out of this. We need to share knowledge and resources and vaccines and whatever other medications that will be brought out.

We need to think of each other as a global family. We are not in this alone and I really feel the United States needs to share patents and technology and vaccines with other parts of the world. This is not the moment to make money. If Indians are not safe, if Africans are not getting vaccines, well, guess what, we’re not safe in America either.

For more information about the NYC Test & Trace Corps, visit testandtrace.nyc or call 212-COVID19.

“We have language specialists for Indian languages, be it Telugu, Tamil, Hindi or Punjabi, etc. If you cannot isolate at home, you can separate at free hotels where you can get free meals even. We arrange grocery deliveries to people’s homes if needed.  Also, home testing and PPE, hand sanitizers, oximeters.”

 “We need to think of each other as a global family. I feel the United States needs to share patents and technology and vaccines with the world. If Indians are not safe, if Africans are not getting vaccines, well, guess what, we’re not safe in America either.”

Image courtesy of (Photo provided)

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