Thousands of Americans could soon join the ranks of disease detectives in one of the most important battles against coronavirus.
Contact tracing has helped slow or stop previous epidemics, such as the SARS and Ebola outbreaks. But it’s never been more critical – or more challenging – than in this fight against coronavirus.
Here’s how contact tracing works and how it can employ Americans who were recently laid off:
What exactly is contact tracing?
Contact tracing tracks down anyone who might have been infected by a person who was recently diagnosed so those contacts can quarantine themselves and prevent further spread.
“In contact tracing, public health staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
“Contacts are provided with education, information, and support to understand their risk, what they should do to separate themselves from others who are not exposed, monitor themselves for illness, and the possibility that they could spread the infection to others even if they themselves do not feel ill.”
It’s an arduous task, but contact tracing has been credited with helping stop the SARS epidemic in 2004.
But immediate action is needed, the CDC said. “Communities must scale up and train a large contact tracer workforce and work collaboratively across public and private agencies to stop the transmission of COVID-19,” the disease caused by novel coronavirus.
Why is contact tracing so critical right now?
Researchers say the US – or really any country – can’t safely reopen without significant amounts of contact tracing and testing.
Without them, “We’re going to be at risk of resurgence of this disease – not just in the fall, but going into next year,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
How does the process work?
Coronavirus survivor Amy Driscoll got a call from her county health department two hours after she got home from the hospital.
A long list of questions followed: “Who have I seen in the last two weeks? Where was I in the last two weeks? Who was I in contact with? Where do I work?” Driscoll recalled.
After that, her coworkers in Ohio had to be contacted. So did a restaurant where she had gone for lunch. And a hair salon that she had visited. And also those who sat near her at a Cleveland Cavaliers game.
But when contacts are notified, they aren’t told who was diagnosed with coronavirus.
“To protect patient privacy, contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection,” the CDC says. “They are not told the identity of the patient who may have exposed them.”
How do people get notified?
Contact tracers use a variety of methods, including phone calls, emails and social media messaging.
Some places are getting creative. In North Dakota, health officials partnered with the creator of an app used to track bison to launch a new app called Care19.
Those who download Care19 will get a random ID number,