Building a brigade of contact tracers

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Name: Brendan Hellweg

Title: Special Projects Manager & Data Lead, Innovation Team

City: Baltimore

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when Baltimore began building a contact-tracing program, there were many unknowns. For example, nobody knew how many cases the city would see, and it was unclear how much money local leaders had to work with.

Oftentimes in government, so much uncertainty can grind planning to a halt. Brendan Hellweg kept things moving by modeling more than a dozen options for what a program could look like based on different sets of assumptions. That work was part of an early round of engagement with city agencies and other partners in the project. And Hellweg said it was a crucial part of getting them all aligned around what they were building together.

“We knew we had to create something very quickly, but the challenge was visualizing exactly what the program should be,” said Hellweg, who shepherded the program’s development. “By using the models, we built a clear, shared language of what we were creating.”

What the partners eventually landed on became the Baltimore Health Corps. It’s an ambitious effort to hire a 300-person public-health brigade tasked with investigating case histories of people who have COVID-19, identifying their contacts, and coordinating care and supports for those who are sick or in quarantine.

The program aims to achieve multiple goals, including training residents who’ve lost jobs during the pandemic, as well as hiring a diverse workforce that looks like the city they serve. The key to building this collaboration in a crisis, Hellweg said, was having early and honest conversations among all the partners to get them aligned “at warp speed.”

“I’ve worked on sizable projects before, but the Health Corps is a whole other category for me,” he said. “It’s surprised me that it’s been able to come together so quickly. Something we were talking about around a Google sheet turned into a job posting, which turned into people leading the city’s health response so quickly.”

Pro tip: “Early coordination and collaboration is an investment to avoid future conflict.”

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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