Bracing for contact tracing

by Fitcoachion | Last Updated: June 1, 2020

What should you do if you get a call from a contact tracer letting you know you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19? Even our best efforts to stay well — by maintaining distance, washing hands often, restricting the size of our social circles, and wearing masks — may not keep the virus at bay as cities and towns lift restrictions.

That’s why many experts recommend three combined approaches to help prevent a dangerous resurgence of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19:

What is contact tracing and who does it?

Generally, contact tracing means locating and testing people known to have been in close contact with a sick person, to prevent an illness like COVID-19 from spreading to an ever-widening circle of people. This strategy works best when case numbers are low — not high or rising fast, as they did in hot spots like New York and California in late March and early April. After the peak passes, contract tracing is feasible. It’s proven effective in countries such as Germany, China, and South Korea.

Just how can we make contact tracing work in the US? Public health authorities are trying to figure that out, even as cities and towns recruit people to train as contact tracers. In some places, contact tracers are volunteers; others are paid. And they have a variety of backgrounds, including public health workers, retired healthcare professionals, furloughed hospitality workers, and students. Being able to speak the language and understand the culture of those who will be called are major advantages. So is a healthy amount of empathy.

Three steps in contact tracing for COVID-19

While local processes vary in the US and around the globe, the World Health Organization recommends these three steps for contact tracing programs:

How cellphones can help with contact tracing

Researchers and tech companies quickly realized that cell phone technology could help determine who an infected person has come into contact with, with and the status of a person in quarantine. For example, apps exist (or are in development) that can

Cell phones have also been used to enforce quarantine in a few countries, although some measures taken may not be acceptable in the US due to concerns about privacy and personal freedoms. But as we enter the “new normal,” requests for our cell phone number when entering a restaurant, supermarket, or other business may become more common. Later, if a worker or other customer has a positive test, knowing who has been there and their phone numbers can make it much easier to notify those who could have been exposed.

Using cell phone technology for those who agree to participate will allow contact tracers and public health workers to allot more resources to those who don’t have a phone, or who are unwilling to share information by phone.

Challenges to contact tracing

Formidable challenges include:

And there is debate about whether data should be stored centrally (for example, by a government agency), whether sharing one’s medical information should be mandatory, and whether individuals should be able to opt out of tracing programs.

The bottom line

Hopefully you and those around you are doing everything possible to limit the risk of becoming infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, and you’ll never be called by a contact tracer. But if you do, don’t be alarmed. What they are doing is a vital part of safely reversing the stay-at-home orders and restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

For more information on coronavirus and COVID-19, see the Harvard Health Publishing Coronavirus Resource Center.

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