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News Brief: Contact Tracing, Internet Voting, Airbnb Bookings


Several states begin to reopen this week. Before that can happen everywhere, though, a robust contact tracing system has to be in place.


Here's how that works. Public health workers interview people with COVID-19 and ask who they've had contact with. Then officials ask those contacts to put themselves in quarantine. As we heard yesterday, two former health officials estimate that the nation needs an army of contact tracers, some 180,000 people nationwide. So what are states doing to hire and train them?

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been looking into this and joins us now. Hi, Selena.


MARTIN: So you surveyed all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico about this very thing, contact tracing, how many people would be required, how you set it up. What'd you learn?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, we were able to get data from 41 states. And the total they currently have added up to 7,300. Most states said they were planning to hire. And after the hiring surge, we'll have a total workforce of 35,600. This is a snapshot from this past week. A lot is in flux. But that's our best estimate for what's planned, more than 35,000 contact tracers nationally.

MARTIN: OK. So you just identified a workforce of upwards of 35,000. But that's still a lot less than the numbers Steve cited in the intro, right? I mean, is that going to be enough?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The short answer is not even close. You mentioned that estimate of 180,000 people needed. Other estimates have put the number needed at 100,000. Here's what Tom Frieden, former CDC director, told me about the totals we found.

TOM FRIEDEN: It's a start. I think an increasing number of health departments around the country recognize the need to substantially scale up activities.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One guidepost some epidemiologists have been using is during the pandemic, you want 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. Only one state has that right now and it's North Dakota. After hiring, three more places will - Michigan, Nebraska and the District of Columbia. Of course, if you have a huge population, this is a bigger task.

California announced plans to create a 10,000-person contact-tracing workforce. And even then, it won't meet that threshold. Other states that are building up - Louisiana is hiring 700 contact tracers. Texas is working towards 4,000. And that has not been previously reported. We have a state look-up at npr.org. So you can see how many your state has.

MARTIN: North Dakota, you say, has a robust system about to be in place. But they didn't have a severe outbreak, right? Like, is every state going to need to staff up like this or just the ones where there are bad outbreaks?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So no one knows where this virus is headed. And as states ease social distancing, a situation that seems under control could change quickly. But a few states did tell us they were not planning to hire more. Minnesota was one. Other states said, hey, we're playing this by ear. If we need more, we'll get more. I talked to Crystal Watson. She's a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. And she warns against that approach. Here's what she said.

CRYSTAL WATSON: It really is not a wait and see if we need it. It's we need it in order to open up and manage epidemics in different locations as they arise.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says that investing in contact tracing is fighting back against the epidemic at its source. And it's a smart investment even if you ultimately overshoot and have too many contact tracers.

MARTIN: What about the money, Selena? How much is it going to cost to put this workforce together?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So obviously, unless it's an all-volunteer workforce, it's going to take money. For 100,000 tracers, one estimate put that cost at $4 billion. And Congress has not specifically included that in a funding package yet. But many states said they could really use money and also just guidance on how to do this, how to create a giant public health workforce on a dime.

MARTIN: All right. NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. We appreciate it. Thank you.



MARTIN: All right. With local economies at a standstill and all of our collective concerns about the coronavirus, it's sort of easy to forget sometimes that we are just months away from a presidential election.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Officials had been asking how to manage historic turnout that was expected this November. Now they must ask a different question. How to vote safely in a pandemic? Many states, as you know, delayed their primaries. But you cannot delay the General Election Day. Wisconsin held a primary where people risked the crowds to vote in person. But state election officials would like to avoid that. So some are piloting online voting.

MARTIN: So let's talk about all of this, how voting might change because of the pandemic. NPR's Miles Parks covers this. And he joins us now. Hi, Miles.


MARTIN: So what can you tell us about what some states are doing with online or electronic voting because of the pandemic?

PARKS: So this is a system provided by a Seattle-based company called Democracy Live that is allowing some states to offer electronic ballot return through a web portal to some of their voters. West Virginia passed a bill earlier this year allowing voters with disabilities to vote this way. And I'm reporting today that two more states are likely coming on board with this plan.

Delaware confirmed that they'll be piloting the technology in their June primary. And New Jersey is considering offering the technology as well, according to an election official I spoke with who had knowledge of their plans. But this is - it's important to note that this is only for overseas and military voters and voters with disabilities. It's still a really small subset of voters...

MARTIN: Right.

PARKS: ...When you consider the millions and millions of people who are going to vote in November. But it means we are probably in a scenario where 2020 is going to see the most Internet voting of any presidential election ever. And advocates see it as the beginning of the future of voting, not something that's just going to stop here with these small population blocs.

MARTIN: Right. Obviously, there are concerns about online systems - right? - hacking among them. We saw some of that, obviously, in 2016. What sort of security concerns are there with this system?

PARKS: There are plenty, which is why people who are pushing for this technology really do not like the phrase or term Internet voting. The founder of Democracy Live told me that online voting is a loaded term is what he said. He said this is really a secure, cloud-based, document storage application. But a number of cybersecurity experts I spoke with kind of scoffed at that, saying this is Internet voting. That's how you access a cloud.

MARTIN: Right.

PARKS: It's still trusting a computer to record a vote correctly. And computers are inherently vulnerable. The other consistent thing they said is that there are probably vulnerabilities in Democracy Live's system to be concerned about. You know, without a truly independent, public security audit, no one in the security world can say for sure that this is a safe way to transmit ballots. And no audit like that has been provided by the company yet.

MARTIN: But you said that this effort to bring about online voting happened in some states even before we were aware of the scope of the pandemic. So what is driving this?

PARKS: So a lot of this push is being driven by those in the disability rights advocacy community. You know, you think about since the pandemic took over a couple months ago, the voting world has been talking kind of nonstop about the need to expand vote by mail. But those pushes can leave behind a lot of voters with slightly different needs. You think about how hard it is for a blind voter, for instance, to vote a mail ballot that just shows up at their door.

So this system can increase accessibility for those voters. The question is, does the benefit outweigh the risk here? Maybe it does for overseas soldiers fighting in wars, maybe it does for voters with disabilities. But it's hard to figure out where to draw that line, according to election officials.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Miles Parks. Thank you, Miles. We appreciate you sharing your reporting on this.

PARKS: Thank you, Rachel.


MARTIN: All right. The gig economy, you'll remember, rose from the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis. Uber, Lyft, various food delivery apps created new business models and then saw subsequently massive growth.

INSKEEP: The short-term rental company Airbnb was among the giants. It was worth some $30 billion. Until recently, the company had been preparing to go public. But the pandemic has nearly stopped travel and made staying in a stranger's home seem less appealing. The drop in bookings calls Airbnb's future into question.

MARTIN: Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky talked with NPR's Bobby Allyn recently. And Bobby joins us now on the line. Hey there.


MARTIN: So Airbnb sort of gives us a window into the larger travel industry and how it's going to come out of all of this. What did Chesky tell you?

ALLYN: When this - when the virus really took hold, it sent Chesky and other Airbnb executives, basically, into a tail-spinning, crisis management mode, right? I mean, think about...


ALLYN: ...Chesky founded a startup - right? - like you said, that relies on stranger-to-stranger contact, like, booking a bed in a spare room of a local you've never met.

MARTIN: You assume it's clean. You go in.


MARTIN: You don't worry about it.

ALLYN: Exactly, yeah. So knowing that that's, you know, not the most popular idea right now, Chesky said he is trying to calm fears. He launched this big cleaning initiative. He's now requiring all rooms to be empty for a night before you can book. And he thinks when people start venturing out of their homes, eventually, that they're going to want to start traveling and going on vacations again. He says, it'll be different. But that's not going away. And Chesky told me, you know, Airbnb was watching the virus in China, where they have a sizable presence, and says, when it eventually took hold in the U.S. and lockdowns swept the country, it hit him.

BRIAN CHESKY: That was the moment when I think we realized, life is going to change. And it may never quite be exactly like it was before. There's going to be a prolonged storm and then a new normal.

ALLYN: So the question is, how will Airbnb survive to see that new normal?

MARTIN: Is there a plan for that?

ALLYN: Good question. Well, Chesky...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALLYN: ...Again, says, cleanliness is going to be No. 1. I mean, he says he has, you know, done his research. He's a CEO of Airbnb. And he knows that guests are even going to start looking for Airbnb listings based on how clean it is. So he's tapped a former U.S. surgeon general to help him train hosts on these new hygienic standards. And besides that, I mean, look; he's the founder of a buzzy, Silicon Valley startup. So he kind of exudes optimism. And that is baked into his post-pandemic plan. He's hoping that people will come back to Airbnb eventually.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Bobby Allyn for us. Bobby, thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.