While most discussions have focused on countries’ use of surveillance technology, contact tracing is actually a fairly manual process. After interviewing contact tracing experts and taking an online course, ProPublica health reporter Caroline Chen presents her takeaways.
I want you to mentally prepare yourself for a phone call that you could receive sometime over the course of this pandemic: in the next few months or year.
Your phone might ring, and when you pick it up, you may hear someone say, “Hi, I’m calling from the health department.” After verifying your identity, the person may say something like, “I’m afraid we have information that you were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.”
The person calling is what’s known as a contact tracer. As most states begin to lift restrictions on movement and people once more start to eat in restaurants, work in offices and get on public transit, these phone calls will become more frequent. State public health departments are hiring thousands of these workers, and experts are calling for more than 100,000 contact tracers to be deployed across America.
I can only imagine how I would feel if I got a call telling me that I had been in close contact with a COVID-19 patient—shocked, a little scared and possibly a bit in denial. But after spending a week talking to contact tracing experts across the country, and taking an online course as well, I think I’d also feel one more thing: empowered. Here’s why.
Contact Tracing Will Help Us Reopen Safely
Contact tracing is a public health strategy that has been used successfully to combat infectious disease outbreaks across the globe, from the 1930s, when it helped get rampant syphilis under control
in the United States, to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Fundamentally, contact tracing works by tracking down all the contacts of an infected person and then taking appropriate action to break the chain of transmission. In practice, that action will vary depending on the nature of the disease — obviously, you don’t need someone to self-isolate at home and have groceries delivered to them if a disease can only be transmitted sexually.
The current coronavirus has been particularly tricky to contain because patients can be contagious a few days before they display symptoms, and some infected people may never show symptoms
at all. Furthermore, the time between the onset of symptoms from one case to another is estimated to be quite short
, around four days. All these characteristics have helped the virus spread rapidly—and that means that tracers have to move very quickly to reach patients and their contacts in order to cut off new branches of infection.
Experts tell me that contact tracing is the key to safely reopening the economy.
“This narrative has emerged that either we lift all our social distancing measures and let the virus burn through the population, or we hunker down at home forever and let the economy collapse, but that is a false choice,” said Dr. Crystal Watson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of a white paper
on how the United States can scale up its abilities to identify and trace COVID-19 cases.
“We have this tool—contact tracing—and if we spend some effort and funding on actually building up our capacities, we can control transmission, get back to work much more safely and avoid unnecessary loss of thousands of lives.”
When a patient gets a coronavirus test, the lab reports the results back not only to the patient’s doctor, but also to the local health department. A contact tracer is assigned to the case and will call the person to ask about symptoms, to take down information about people the patient has been in close contact with recently, and to help draw up a plan for isolation, which could entail figuring out how to get groceries or medications delivered. Continue Reading…