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:
- continued mitigation efforts, which includes preventive strategies like those described above
- prompt access to testing, with quick turnaround on results
- contact tracing.
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:
- Identify close contacts. After someone tests positive for the COVID-19 virus, they should first receive appropriate medical care and take measures to isolate themselves. Then, a contact tracer can interview them to get a list of people with whom they’ve spent significant time. According to the CDC, this list should include intimate partners, household members, and anyone coming within six feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes starting 48 hours before the symptoms that led to testing. Other factors, such as whether the infected person was coughing or wearing a mask, also affect infection risk. Checking calendars and social media communications can help people retrace their steps and refresh their memories about who they might have exposed.
- Contact close contacts. The contact tracer will call or text each person considered to be at risk for infection. This is tricky. If the call is unexpected, the contact might be distrustful, skeptical, or even uncooperative with the caller.